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Play Makes Children Smart, Happy and Prepared for the Future

8 benefits of play and some reasons why it has fallen away

By Chloe Barron
Source: By Chloe Barron

The other day I ran into my friend, Lynn Lutomski, Director of the Irvington Children’s Center. I shared that I was writing an article for a knitting magazine about how purposeful hand use boosts mood, mind, creativity and confidence. Lynn lit up. She told me about a knitting club for the kids at the center. When the children create a scarf with dropped stitches, holes and their own special design, they feel proud and engage in a useful learning process. It is not just about the product but the things that occur while making it: absorption, conversation, experimentation, imperfection-peace/mistake-embrace, design, relaxation and pleasure. It is a semi-structured form of play that allows for individual expression and some happy moments.

But too often, there is a sense that such an endeavor is a waste of time.

“Play,” Lynn said, “has become a four-letter word.” I asked her if she would write down her thoughts and share them with me. Here is the email she sent.

Hi Carrie, it was so refreshing running into you today.

I get so excited when I have conversations with parents and professionals who see the struggles kids are having today with the absence of true down time. As a school age director for 15 years, it saddens me to see children less willing to take chances and try new things. They are anxious with boredom, suspicious about daydreaming and self-conscious when trying something new. At home, TV shows, car movies, headphones, video games, and computers are there to fill the inner space. Kids are plugged in, tuned out, over-stimulated and connecting to all things external. They are rushed to the next activity and expected to perform. Instead of inventing games together and running the show, they have to fit into structures set up for them with imposed rules. With that scenario, independence is unachievable. Self-reliance is lost. They are pressured to get everything right. Expectations for across-the-board accomplishment creates adult like pressure. They are careful instead of carefree.

Academics have become a high stakes business so that learning is no longer fun, exciting or developmental. There is a premature focus on cerebral accomplishment. Too much is done for them and their world is less experiential. We are forgetting about their developmental needs: explore, make mistakes, hone a skill and own it. By expecting too much, we set them up for feeling badly.

Parents and educators all agree that children need safe environments to take risks, be free, sing, dance, stumble, play instruments for fun, explore new things and solve problems through trying things. Play is how they learn and develop skills and yet free play has been replaced by academic strife. I hear daily, "How was SCHOOL, how was the test, did you get your homework done?"

Now more then ever there is such a strong need for quality after school programs. Not just for child care needs but so they can learn through play and be plain old kids. Master getting along with others and being part of a bigger picture. They need to be unplugged and less programmed. They need to get dirty and messy, be silly and do something just because. Mistakes are helpful because they deepen understanding of the task and provide insight about personal strengths and weaknesses. If a project is their own, not a performance for someone else, they build a sense of self. This is what helps them move on and feel good about who they are.

My goal as a school-age director is to help children feel successful. Connecting with their hearts, souls and spirits is a huge part of that So much of motivation and pleasure in learning comes from this. It is not all about the grades, tests and right answers. Unstructured play, open-ended art projects, a new game, jumping rope or shooting basketball for the first time are essential experiences. These are major feats that bring them joy. Play is definitely not a four-letter word.”


There is science behind the benefits of play. Researchers, luminaries and psychological scholars Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget outlined the phases of development. Piaget focused on intellectual development and Erikson on psychosocial health. For Piaget age 6-11 is the Concrete Operations phase and for Erikson it is the Industry versus Inferiority phase.

Both thinkers assert that latency age children are best suited for concrete, skill building endeavors, as opposed to abstract intellectual exercises. Musical, athletic, artistic and manual exploration, industry and mastery are key during this phase and are a form of semi-structured play. Honoring the biological imperative optimizes the chance for success in the next phase. Build the foundation and good things happen.

Dr. Peter Gray, Child Psychologist at Boston College, emphasizes the crucial need for play on his Psychology Today blog and also in his book Free to Learn. By preserving play and the spontaneous self, we protect mental health, intellectual curiosity and personal motivation. Burnout, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and a fragile identity are less likely.

Pushing kids too far, too fast to try to insure success, compete, convey status, or to compensate for our own unmet needs is human, but fraught. People say, “I cannot pull out of the rat race or my child will be left behind. How will he or she get anywhere if she does not get into the right school, onto an elite team, etc?”

Most parents I meet in both professional and social settings abhor the relentless schedules, chauffeuring, exhaustion and juggling. They despair over why this is the case. They worry about their kids’ stress and sleep deprivation. No one is happy. It works well for almost no one, but people are afraid to stand up and say “No.” They fear the consequences.

When we were children, we were far more autonomous and our parents saw our homework as our responsibility. They did not hover or check. We played outside, made up games without their instruction and had a great time with our innovations.

Now kids are attached to devices and it is hard to get them off, yet the devices do not seem to provide the same joy as imaginative play in a green space. If we try to take them away, so our children can sleep, have a conversation, bake a cake or rake a yard, protests, cries, threats and collapses occur.

Perhaps the devices are a self-medication for academic and athletic pressure, a way of numbing, escaping and forgetting. Everyone knows we are in a devolving, distorted, agonizing cultural situation, but we cannot seem to stop it.

It takes courage to walk away from the race, enforce downtime without devices, tolerate our kids anger and aggression and take control. Sometimes we are so depleted from the stress that we just cannot fight the battle. It is a vicious cycle.

If individual parents and families decide on the best way to spend their time instead of complying with cultural and community mores, things might get better. If we opt out of a race to the top and choose to design personal lives that protect wellness, what is the worst that can happen? A child does not get that award, this school or some recognition? Someone else will get ahead? There is always another way to flourish.

We need to find ways to help our children experience the inner life – instincts, daydreams and organic pace– for many reasons. Creativity, intellect and life satisfaction are just a few of the benefits.

Inner self built trumps external honor bestowed when it comes to resilience, imagination, grit, self-reliance and a solid identity through the life cycle.

Let’s repeat these Eight Benefits:

  1. Creativity
  2. Intellect
  3. Life satisfaction
  4. Resilience
  5. Imagination
  6. Grit
  7. Solid identity
  8. Self-reliance

Letting kids be plain old kids– play, sleep, dabble in downtime–to find out who they are is protective and productive. Sometimes, our dominance and direction does not take them where they need to go. It can even interfere with a budding brilliance. They may have gifts that fit with a future we may not recognize.

Setting up conditions under which their own intuitions can surface is a solid strategy for a well-lived life.