Jennifer L. Gregg
Ph.D., LPC-S, NCC
Registered Play Therapist
Play and Grow Counseling, LLC
Often, we think of play as a means of relaxation or relief from working. Having time to play is used as a reward or something your child is allowed to do during free time. ‘You can play AFTER you finish your homework,’ or ‘you can play for five minutes before we have to leave.’ In these moments, play is not important but rather something to do just because.
But play is important. Play is serious work. Play is an opportunity for your child to learn and grow.
Researchers suggest that for an activity to be considered play, it must be directed by the child themselves; not provided as a reward; have some sort of structure; have an element of imagination; be completed when the child is open to engaging in the activity.
Unfortunately, when you break play down into fitting into these five categories, much of what modern parents think of as play does not qualify. Rather than allowing unstructured play, as adults, we tell our children what, when, and how to play. In doing so, we remove a foundational opportunity for our children to teach themselves valuable skills to improve and strengthen their mental health.
Amongst many, some critical findings identified by the CDC support that unstructured play:
• Promotes positive feelings that can help reduce anxious, depressive, or angered emotions. Children learn to foster a sense of joy, excitement, and thrill that they can carry throughout their life.
• Builds resilience to overcome and manage adversity. As play can be challenging and unpredictable, children develop coping skills to manage their emotional responses and compensate for their physical capabilities.
• Improves concentration by remaining focused on the many components invested within play themes.
• Develop and maintain healthy relationships in becoming more self-aware in compromise and cooperation. Within the unstructured play, children build upon problem-solving skills and emotional intelligence, expanding upon their abilities to empathize with others.
• Improve undesirable behaviors by having an outlet to express their emotions rather than imploding onto others appropriately. Play offers a non-stressful tool for self-expression.
The beauty of play is that it offers a look into your child’s world and gives them a voice to be heard. Your child’s mental health is essential. Let them be little. Let them be creative. Let them play.