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Why is play so beneficial for young children?

Parents have an important role in encouraging fun and games too, so let's look at why play is a vital part of your child's healthy development.

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It’s commonly said that ‘laughter is the best medicine’ and now a research paper is calling for paediatricians to write out a ‘prescription for play’ in the first two years of a child’s life.

Of course, parents have an important role in encouraging fun and games too, so let’s look at why play is a vital part of your child’s healthy development.

What is meant by ‘play’?

The researchers behind The Power of Play: A Paediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children say that although it’s hard to define ‘play’, this pastime is something that’s voluntary, fun and often spontaneous. There’s also a growing consensus that play is, ‘An activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement and results in joyful discovery.’

Play may be self-directed, also known as free play, or adult-guided, and here are four forms that it can take:

  • Object play: this is where a baby or child explores an object and learns about it, whether that’s by munching on a teething ring (sensory exploration) or using a banana as a telephone (symbolic exploration).
  • Physical or ‘rough-and-tumble’ play: whether your baby plays pat-a-cake games or your preschooler lets loose with free play, this kind of play is all about building motor skills, honing social skills, promoting active living and providing opportunities for safe risk-taking, which helps children develop emotional intelligence.
  • Outdoor play: this could involve your child exploring a park or exploring the outside area of their child care centre. Either way, outdoor play is important for youngsters’ physical health, cognitive and language development, plus social skills. It brings children together and helps them appreciate the natural world as well.
  • Social or pretend play: this kind of play can happen individually and with others, and it involves your child experimenting with different social roles in a ‘non-literal fashion’. Activities like dress-up, make-believe and imaginary play help children to develop language, learn to take turns, negotiate rules and cooperate with one another.

What other benefits come from play?

Although your child may engage in different types of play, depending on their age and interests, the research paper identifies five key ways that play can benefit children:

1. Play is seriously good for the brain:

Though it involves giggles and games, the researchers say that, ‘Play is not frivolous; it is brain-building.’

Play helps children learn to problem-solve, think creatively, multi-task and develop behavioural flexibility, and it also promotes curiosity, which is tied to memory and learning.

There has also been research (albeit mostly on rats) which shows that play has, ‘Both direct and indirect effects on brain structure and functioning.’

2. Play helps children deal with stress:

In terms of their headspace, the researchers say that, ‘Play helps children deal with stress, such as life transitions.’ Group play can act as a social buffer and reduce a child’s anxiety when they’re starting preschool, and research has shown that one-on-one play with a teacher can improve the behaviour of ‘disruptive’ children.

3. Play provides opportunities to bond with others:

When children play together, they learn social skills, such as negotiation and cooperation, and make friends. They get to practice their language skills and learn how to balance their emotions and relate to different kinds of people.

However, play doesn’t just benefit children – it’s good for adults too! Researchers say that parents and children experience, ‘Mutual joy and shared attunement’ when playing together, and that this can lower stress levels and provide valuable opportunities to communicate, engage and bond.

Young children enjoying in the playroom

4. Play is a healthy exercise:

Physical play is a great way to promote a healthy weight and a positive mindset. As well as warding off obesity, active play helps to develop your child’s mobility, flexibility, balance, coordination and agility; and can help them focus when they go inside the classroom again.

5. Play encourages a love of learning:

Becoming ‘school-ready’ isn’t only about whether your child knows their A, B, Cs, and play-based learning helps to prepare your child for the years ahead.

To this end, the researchers say that, ‘Instead of focusing solely on academic skills … cultivating the joy of learning through play is likely to better encourage long-term academic success. Collaboration, negotiation, conflict resolution, self-advocacy, decision-making, a sense of agency, creativity, leadership, and increased physical activity are just some of the skills and benefits children gain through play.’

Overall, the research shows that play has many, many benefits for children, so it’s something that Dr Mum and Dr Dad can prescribe daily – and educators too.

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