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Toddler Talk: Unscripted Play

I believe that we, as adults, often forget the power of play. The older we get, the more likely we are to play less and work more. This is counter to everything that children need and want. I know when I look back to my childhood, the memories that stand out are playing kick ball in the neighborhood, climbing trees with my brother, hide and seek in the yard and the hours spent in the treehouse.

Unfortunately, there is mounting evidence that there has been a drastic decline in play in recent years. As a result, researchers are exploring the effects of less play on children. However, what is more important is what they are discovering about the benefits of play in contrast to what is lost in its absence.

Here are four of the most important findings in recent studies on unscripted play (play between peers that is not interrupted, directed or guided by an adult):

1. Motivation to act kindly: Play is a choice, and players are able to stop at any time. As children witness friends leaving or choosing to play elsewhere as a result of stinginess, bossiness or competitiveness, they quickly realize that it is in their interest to act kindly.

2. Seeing another’s point of view: Cooperative play requires understanding and anticipating another’s needs or feelings. If a child misses the opportunity to relate to a peer, the child will find himself alone. This solitude and loneliness helps develop empathy and awareness of the world.

3. Humility: Children play on equal footing, and do not tolerate peers who believe they are better than anyone else, should always get their way or deserve to win. This presents an interesting dynamic wherein children keep each other’s egos in check with jokes and insults to yield a collective equilibrium.

4. Problem solving: Children need to learn and practice how to make decisions, especially in a conflict situation. During play, there are always disagreements and confrontations that require conflict management, problem solving, self-control and self-regulation. When there are no adults to intervene and referee, children are forced to come to an agreeable solution by working together.

It is so amazing to witness the many positive and healthy outcomes as a result of a natural instinct to play. Above all, this drive is the manner in which nature ensures that we learn how to function and thrive in a social context. I suppose a fifth benefit of note is that we understand what it means to interact with others as human beings in life—certainly worth encouraging in children!

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