It’s that time of year again when many of us make New Year’s resolutions.  It’s a chance to turn over a new leaf and get a fresh start.  Exercise more often, eat healthier, join a book club, take up salsa dancing, learn how to play the piano, or vacuum regularly behind the couch. 

This January, I’m seizing the opportunity to be a better parent.  This year, I’m going to play more.

Because I want my children to play more.

Let me explain.

If you look at children closely, you’ll see that many of them have stopped playing.  Many are silently sitting side-by-side on the couch staring at handheld gaming consoles.  Others are shooting machine guns at enemy squadrons on the television set.  Some of them have their mothers’ smartphones and others are surfing cat videos on their fathers’ laptops.  But only a few of them are playing. 

Only a few of them are blowing dandelion tufts, playing hide-and-seek, skipping stones, diving in leaf piles, hurling snowballs, catching fireflies, building makeshift forts, pretending to be cowboys and princesses, creating imaginary worlds in the backyard pile of dirt, or collecting flower petals and small stones to mix a magic potion. 

“So what,” you say.  “Fort building and dirt playing are outmoded pastimes in today’s modern world of video gaming consoles and smartphones.” 

The problem with this way of thinking is that there is a large scientific literature that demonstrates that play is a central way in which children build complex, skilled, responsive, socially-adept, and cognitively-flexible brains. 

Free play with friends builds attention and self-regulatory skills.  Young children who play regularly tend have better communication abilities, display more creative thinking, exhibit better memory, and show better problem-solving skills.  They also tend to be less stressed and have strong social skills. 

Virtual play doesn’t cut it.  Sure, videogames are good fun.  But real play doesn’t happen on a two-dimensional screen with artificially intelligent friends, virtual pets, or animated cities and towns.  Real play happens in the real world where children build real things, play real games, and make real friends. 

Let me give you one example. 

When children play freely with peers—improvising with props, creating their own games, and developing new story lines—they stimulate the growth of brain cells in the executive portion of the frontal cortex, an area that lays the foundation for the circuitry of what’s known as executive function.  Executive function refers to a set of skills important for several cognitive functions, such as attention and memory.  It’s also involved in self-regulation—a critical skill for controlling emotions, resisting impulses, and exerting self-control and discipline.

Children who are highly self-regulated can wait their turn on the playground, resist the temptation to snatch a desired Storm Trooper action figure out of their brother’s hands, clean up after a play date with little or no nagging, automatically help another child who’s struggling to zipper her jacket, and persist at a challenging puzzle.  Well-regulated children also actively work to control negative emotion. 

Free play develops self-regulatory skills because it puts the action in children’s hands.  If Ava makes up a pretend story line where she’s the teacher and her playmates are the students, Ava’s friends have to follow her rules if they want to play along.  Or they may push and pull and argue with one another to agree on a set of rules and negotiate how they’ll be reinforced.  Either way, this is the development of self-control in action.  However, the more children’s play is focused on videogames and virtual interactions, the fewer opportunities they have to practice self-regulation and to police themselves. 

Self-regulation is not just a key ingredient for a successful childhood; it also predicts effective development in just about every domain.  In fact, self-regulation is a better predictor of school success than IQ.  

Also, an interesting relationship exists between the recent falling off of children’s free play and changes in children’s self-regulatory skills.  If you’d put up a graph charting recent changes in children’s free play time next to a graph charting changes in children self-regulatory skills, you’d see that both have been plummeting along the same curve.  Today’s five year olds seem to have the same self-regulatory skills of three years olds in the 1940s.  In the late 1940s, researchers asked three-, five-, and seven-year-olds to stand perfectly still without moving.  The three-year-olds, as you might guess, couldn’t do it at all.  The five-year-olds stood still for an average of about three minutes.  The seven-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked.  When this experiment was replicated in 2001, the five-year-olds behaved as the three-year-old did sixty years before, and the seven-year-olds behaved like the 1940s five-year-olds.

Because we know that play builds self-regulation and that both have decreased in recent decades one wonders whether the drop in free play has caused the drop in self-regulation.  To be sure, more research is needed.  Nonetheless, this pattern should serve as a red flag to parents because poor self-regulatory skills are associated with an increased risk of all sorts of problem behaviors like ADHD, school dropout, drug use, and crime.

So why am I resolving to play more if what I really want is my children to play more? 

It’s because parents can’t simply unplug their children and expect them to play more.  Try powering down your 6-year-old’s video gaming console and see if he spontaneously plays.  It’s more likely he’ll spontaneously whine.

My resolution to play more just might work because children are built to imitate others.  You already know this from the time you mistakenly blurted out that your mother-in-law is a crotchety old hag and then your children repeated this sentiment in front of your spouse.  Infants as young as thirteen months can imitate an event they had seen a week before.  By the time children are about a year-and-a-half old, they can act out something they had seen only one time four months prior.

Imitation is a skill that never leaves children.  If a toddler can embed into his memory an event after only one exposure, imagine what’ll happen if he sees you making your life more playful. 

So clear the calendar, turn off the TV, and give play a try.  It’ll be fun!  How do you do it?  Think of the fish mongers at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, the playful people at Google, and the Ping-Pong playing employees at Pixar.  It’ll give you the inspiration, the audacity, the bravado to give real play back to children and be a better parent.

That’s my resolution as a parent for 2013.  How about you?  Will you make a resolution to play more in the new year? 

About the Author

Gabrielle Principe, Ph.D.

Gabrielle Principe, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the College of Charleston and author of Your Brain on Childhood. 

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