Play isn’t just something children do to have fun. It is vital to their development and helps them develop essential life skills.
Watching cartoons or playing a video game is not actually play, although these activities can be entertaining and even educative. True play is free play, where a child is allowed to choose what activity he wants and carry it out the way he wants, not in the way organized and structured for him. You got that right, just the way it was for us as children.
Growing up, even though we had school and after-school lessons, we still had a tremendous amount of time to choose fun activities by ourselves and also play with other children. We created games to play with udala/agbalumo/“cherry” seeds, made up the rules as we went along, resolved conflicts between players, learnt how to compete fairly and handle losing graciously, and discovered the kinds of things that really interested us. Through play, we learnt to communicate without words, to read body language, and to handle our emotions. We even learnt how to create short plays, cast them appropriately, and direct them.
As little teachers, doctors, newscasters, caterers and casting directors went about their work, things were going on in those little brains beyond just “play” and it made a huge difference when adulthood came.
Today, psychologists report a “play deficit” amongst children today, largely due to over-supervision and helicopter parenting. Here are a few things we should know about play:
1. Play encourages children to discover and follow their own interests as they decide what activities to engage in, what they really want to do, and how they want to do it. This is quite different from entertaining activities organized by adults for children.
2. Play helps children develop problem-solving skills as they learn how to resolve the challenges that arise in the course of their chosen activity, whereas with an adult present to whom they can easily turn they are often not inclined to do it themselves.
3. Play nurtures creativity. Apart from inventing different kinds of games, children learn how to come up with new ideas and variations in a way that they rarely can when constantly supervised by adults telling them what to do.
4. Play aids social adjustment in children. It is through play that getting along with others is best mastered. We learnt how to make friends, consider the feelings of others, be inclusive, and even how to be leaders rather than bosses, when we played with other children. Even two and three-year-olds who are playing side-by-side without interacting, are still playing together and trying to separate them may upset them.
5. Play makes children happy. Sheer happiness, to which every child has a right. The more parents have denied children free play and enrolled them in structured, organized activities instead, the higher the rates of depression and anxiety witnessed among children in the world.
Just as you encourage your children to study, attend ballet lessons, learn piano, join debate societies, and engage in other constructive activities, remember to allow them simply play. They need it.