“Play” Is Not a Four-Letter Word!

Recreation and leisure, to my knowledge, have never held a high value in the United States. Instead, we value hard work, achievement, and accomplishment. All are worth of our respect and pride. But isn’t it ironic that a country whose constitution allows for the pursuit of happiness seems to feel a collective guilt about the very idea of anything fun? And it’s getting worse all the time. “Busy” is the new status symbol. “Overwhelmed” is the new normal.

How did this happen? When did productivity and busyness become our number-one priorities? Even given the Puritan work ethic, life in the States has become so unbalanced that one side of the seesaw is pretty much grounded.

Well, if that’s how adults choose to live, fine; they’re able to make their own choices. But why must we insist that children, who by their very nature are playful, share these particular values? Why are we so eager for our children to “act like adults?” Especially considering that adults can’t exactly be called happy or content these days. Far too many are fried from the effects of living a too-full life. So why would we want children to be subjected to anything remotely like that? Having experienced the many negative effects of trying to do too much in too little time – of living lives that are contrary to human nature – why aren’t we adults doing everything in our power to protect children from a similar fate? Now, more than ever, why aren’t we doing all we can to ensure children experience true childhood while they have the chance?

Instead, I hear from educators all across the country that children actually don’t know how to play anymore. Children! These are creatures born to play (just as kittens and puppies are born to play), but because they’re so busy being scheduled and supervised and “schooled” – all of which are considered more essential than something as “frivolous” as play – children are losing the knack to do what should come naturally to them. Can you imagine trying to keep kittens and puppies from frolicking, when that is so clearly what nature intended?

It pains me to have to reiterate the many benefits children accrue by playing – because that seems to reinforce the demands of those who insist there be “results” from everything children do. I mean, I shouldn’t have to defend play for children any more than I should have to defend their eating, sleeping, and breathing.

But it bears emphasizing that the adult personality is built on the child’s play. Among the social skills learned are the ability to share, cooperate, negotiate, compromise, make and revise rules, and to take the perspectives of others. Play provides opportunities for children to meet and solve problems – the number-one ability they will most assuredly require in this rapidly changing world. It helps children express their thoughts and feelings and to deal with stress. To cope with fears they can’t yet understand or articulate. Through play, children acquire literacy, mathematical, and creative skills. Make-believe play, in particular, has been linked to self-regulation skills, which in turn have been linked to greater academic success than IQ has. Self-regulation skills also help children with self-control and with managing stress while learning. Moreover, if children don’t learn to play as children, they aren’t likely to discover its value as adults. And just think about what a dreary, deadening existence daily life will become without a playful attitude.

Stuart Brown, MD, founder of the National Institute for Play, and psychologist and play researcher Dr. Peter Gray are among the experts who link play deprivation with hostility and depression among children, youths, and adults. They point out that as opportunities for children to play have lessened, aggression and depression have increased. There is no way that’s a coincidence.

Really, we have to ask ourselves: If children begin living like adults in childhood, what will there be left to look forward to? And what joy will they find as adults if striving to “succeed” has become life’s sole purpose? To my way of thinking, a life without play and joy can’t be considered a successful one.


This post was adapted from What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children’s Lives.


This blog post is sponsored by

ChildCare Education Institute


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