I tried to teach my child with books, He gave me only puzzled looks.

I used clear words to discipline, But I just never seemed to win.

Despairingly, I turned aside, “How shall I reach this child?” I cried.

In my hand he put the key: “Come,” he said, “And play with me.”

As my kids continue to grow, I am constantly faced with many structured “activities” to choose from to engage their interests.  Gymnastics, karate, soccer, dance, 4-H, etc.  So. Many. Activities. But I know better.  (And when we know better, we can do better, right?)  So, rather than over schedule their days just to keep them from boredom, instead I loudly sing the praises of unstructured PLAY.  From trampolines and monkey bars, to pillow forts and hide and seek; throw in some face painting (think full-self painting here) and tons of craft paper, all accompanied with a good dose of Crazy 8’s and roller skating.  In a word:  PLAY “But don’t kids need structure?” A friend asked me the other day.  “They play at their ‘activities’ don’t they? (No, they don’t.) What’s so important about unstructured play?” For starters, being able to play is an essential part of our holistic (whole) development.  All kinds of development; social, emotional, physical (strength) and neurological (brain).  Further, playing with your kids is all about CONNECTION, and you know I’m big on connection.  If you are a parent and your relationship with your child has been strained for any reason, play can help repair this.  If you and your child have a rough patch, play can soothe hurt feelings.  If you simply just want to strengthen the relationship between you and your child, playing can help to do that too. Need some convincing?  Here are 10 solid reasons to let kids play (and to play with them):
  • Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children.  According to a new paper in the journal Pediatrics “Play is not frivolous.” The authors found that play “it enhances the process of learning, rather than the content, which in turn teaches us how to pursue goals and ignore distractions.”   Play is necessary in order to help children develop social skills, because they learn to get along with others, take turns, make joint decisions, and share. Play helps children gain healthy emotional development because it allows them to express their conscious and unconscious experiences regarding their feelings about their life and things that are going on around them.  Anthony DeBenedet, a doctor, and co-author of The Art of Roughhousing and the author of Playful Intelligence, calls the Pediatrics article “beautiful” in the way it marshals the hard evidence in favor of climbing trees and playing dress up.  
  • Play is important to a child’s neurological development. By playing, children are promoting healthy brain development because they are strengthening many neuronal connections that would otherwise disappear or weaken if not used. Whether it’s rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together, all type of circuits are firing to facilitate the play.  the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow? This encourages the brain to build new circuits in the prefrontal cortex to help us navigate these complex social interactions.
  • Play helps children adjust to school and improves their readiness to learn. When children are allowed to play without being told what they specifically have to do, they become more focused, have greater attention spans, and improve their academic skills.
  • Over scheduled family lifestyles often lead to less time for quality parent-child interaction and child-driven play.  Family life and child behavior problems can improve when more child-led playtime is allowed on a frequent basis. When parents play with their children in a way that allows the child to decide what they are going to do and with the parent simply being with the child and interacting with them at the child’s level, parent-child relationships and family life can improve.
  • Children learn how to share, resolve conflicts, make decisions, be assertive, and work in groups through unstructured play. Although some children are more apt to have these skills than others, most children are able to develop these great social skills through playing with other children. Even playing alone can help a child gain self-confidence, assertiveness, decision-making skills, and much more.
  • Play allows children to identify, express, and learn about feelings. Children often use pretend play to act out things they see in their lives, such as what their mom and dad are like, experiences that occur at school, or what friendships are like. Amidst these everyday life experiences, children of course have feelings about the events. Children become more aware of their own and others’ feelings and how to manage feelings by expressing them and working through emotions in play.
  • Children can make sense of their life experiences through unstructured play. Children don’t see things the same way as adults do, so they can use play to have a better understanding of certain life experiences.
  • Parents can significantly improve their relationships with their children by learning how to play with them in a specific way using selected toys. When parents simply be with their child and truly focus on their child (without being in a hurry or trying to over-manage the play), their relationship with their child can greatly improve. Play time doesn’t have to occur for hours a day. It can be as little as a few minutes here and there but doing this type of play on a daily or at least almost daily basis is very helpful to a parent-child relationship.
  • Play changes our brain too!  Learning to play with our kids also reignites our own neuropathways.  “The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,” says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. “Without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed,”  “It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems.”  So play is not only what prepares a young brain for life, it also helps older brains self-regulate and strengthens our executive function.
  There you have it.  One of the many cases for PLAY.  Look at your calendar, and begin to carve out ample time daily to let your children play.  Whether it’s inside or outside (outside is best because kids need to move their bodies to engage their brains.)  It’s also ok to set up scenarios for them to use their imaginations.  Then, give yourself permission to play with them!

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