Importance of play

Written by Dr. Mercy Luguterah –
Montessori Director and Adjunct Faculty in Behavioral Sciences at UMUC

In the previous posts, we talked about the lasting effects and critical importance of establishing a positive and nurturing environment for children, especially those in their formative years. In this post, we will be discussing the importance of play in a child’s life. 

In addition to providing physical fitness, playtime has several manifest and latent benefits for children. By using the term “ play”, I’m not referring to a truckload of toys and structured fun, I’m making a case for outside, in the open, unstructured fun, preferably with very limited toy options. Having worked closely with young children for the past 14 consecutive years, it amazes me each day to see the “magic” that transpires in the open. During this unstructured time, children exercise their brain muscles and conjecture creative games. They determine the roles, make up their own script, and voila, a Broadway stage play unfolds right before our eyes. I have noticed that playtime is actually an extension of their work time; an extension that yields enormous benefits. Those not interested in a stage play can play soccer, sing, dance, pick up leaves, dig for insects, listen to the sounds of the birds chirping, play with trucks run around or simply sit under the shade and enjoy the cool breeze. On this very playground, children create for themselves opportunities to learn and enhance life skills.

They learn about patience when they have to wait to partake in a game or are not pleased with a specific role assigned to them. We tell them they can play a different role tomorrow and/or they can also create another game and assign roles. As they mingle with each other, they form friendships and begin to have a sense of who they are, and what qualities or characters they most identify with. They learn the importance of conflict resolution as they work through difficult situations with their friends. We remind them that there is one playground and one classroom, and we all have to learn to be nice to each other even when we don’t always get our way. It’s one of the hardest concepts for children to understand but once they grasp it, it makes their lives easier. The more children play together and feel a part of the group, the more their self-confidence and esteem are boosted. Play is so important to the extent that in the US, State accredited child care centers must dedicate a specific amount of time in the daily schedule to the art of play. Countless research has demonstrated the importance of developing self-esteem at a very young age. In addition to helping them get the wiggles out, running around and being exposed to nature does amazing things for children.

There is just something about being in the open that transcends into calmness for children. Whenever we are unable to use the playground due to inclement weather, we can immediately tell the difference in the children’s overall attitude and motivational levels. It is therefore not surprising that current trends in addressing “disruptive behaviour” in children include nature therapy, i.e. taking children for walks in nature, or actually having certain classes in the open. The good news about play is that it can occur in any safe open space anywhere in the world and it does not need to involve any or much cost. All that is required is adult supervision and a lot of love.

In certain parts of the world, we have been socialised to think that playtime is not that critical and that a child must rather stick to their books. Truth is, at a much younger age, play is much more important than books. As they get older, it becomes necessary to strike a healthy balance between work and play because both are essential. Children who miss out on playtime will often use the phrase “ I missed out on my childhood”. This is another reason why child labour and other forms of abuse (including sexual abuse) are a big “No No” for children. Sometimes a family’s socioeconomic status makes it impossible for a child to get any playtime because they are either busy taking care of the family or engaging in petty trades to provide extra income. The needs and developmental phases of children are the same regardless of their demographic so when they are denied the right to play due to extenuating circumstances, we are inadvertently truncating or suffocating a critical component of their lives. In addition to good food, clothing, and safe shelter, the other thing children need most is ample playtime in a safe open space. They will not remember the price tag of the clothes they wore or the number of electronic gadgets they possessed, but they will always cherish their playtime because that experience is embedded in their heart and souls. Those children who were denied the opportunity to play will also remember they were robbed of that experience.

Play is indeed a child’s work. Let’s not deny them that opportunity.

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