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Toddler Talk: The Benefits of Play

Photograph by Getty Images/Flickr RF

I love watching kids play. Their wonder, their awe, their excitement, their interaction—it is all so raw and pure. It reminds me of how if we aren’t careful, we grow up and forget how much fun it is to spend some time playing each day. Maybe the most important observation we can take is how good play is for kids!

Children have a natural drive and instinct to play. If you observe a child undirected by adults, he or she will actively pursue playing with a fascinating fervor. While it is often a social activity including other children, it is also one of the most individually enriching activities that a child can do. Among the reasons why play is so powerful, two stand out as especially noteworthy.

When children are young, they are limited by their vocabularies and often lack the ability to express themselves in words. This is evident when you ask a toddler what they think or feel about something, and their response is a blank stare or a shrug of the shoulders. Amazingly, playing allows them to communicate their thoughts, needs, feelings, and desires without having to talk. Garry Landreth, a play therapy expert and author, says that “Play is the language of children, and toys are their words.”

Children are also limited by their understanding of the world around them. We often refer to this as an underdeveloped worldview. They are learning to relate to others, that actions have consequences, and how to express themselves effectively, but those things come with practice. Play provides a safe place to test boundaries, watch the effects of decisions and build self-awareness.

What’s more, play allows children to get through past or future experiences and create different endings to their stories. They can express their dreams and wishes through pretending. They can learn more about themselves and others through interaction and observation. The more they play, the more they benefit.

Historically, children played more than they did anything else. Children were outside making forts or hunting for lizards. They were inside teaching math to stuffed animals or baking plastic food. They were drawing or painting or molding or sculpting. The focus of their attention was on the possible, the potential, the pretend.

Currently, with the increase in academic expectations, the surge in extracurricular activities and the widespread technological obsession with TV, video games and computers, children have very limited and infrequent play times. Unfortunately, that means their main source of social, emotional, and psychological learning has become an afterthought. This makes it very challenging for children to master the necessary behaviors, skills and beliefs that are required for optimal development.

So, what are some things that you can do to encourage and support your children’s need and desire for play? Here are three easy ideas:

1. Set aside daily play time. Tasks entered in the calendar take precedence, so schedule at least a 30-minute play session at the same time every day. It does not require an elaborate setup; just let your kids play with whatever they want for half an hour. This can be solitary play, or it can include siblings, friends or you!

2. Eliminate electronics. Ensure that the play time is rooted in imagination and creativity by allowing children to play only with toys or activities that do not require a plug or charger. The options available can still cater to their personal preferences, such as a blank tablet for the future Picasso or a train track for the budding engineer, but eliminate all technology-based choices.

3. Make it fun! Explain that play time is important, and build anticipation of the daily session. If your children want you to be included, participate with enthusiasm and excitement. Remember that your children will communicate to you through their play, so it is a privilege to be invited.

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