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The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development

Children hiding behind trees in the park so they don't get tagged. Preschoolers tumbling down during "Ring Around the Rosy." Playing has a profound impact on children's healthy development. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget once stated, "Play is the work of childhood." Vinay Gaglani-Isaacs, a licensed professional counselor at Portland, Oregon's The Next Step Counseling, describes the significance of play: "The opportunity for free play is not optional for children, nor should it be a mere reward for getting chores or homework done. It is as necessary to their health as a healthy diet and a good night's sleep!"

Playing as Experiment

When you see your child pretending to be a chemist and mixing water and food coloring or performing medical exams on teddy bears, you witness the power of role-playing. "One of the greatest benefits of play, I believe, is the richness of opportunity to experiment," says Gaglani-Isaacs. "During play, children can experiment with different roles, for example, doctor/patient, teacher/student and, of course, parent/child."

Role-playing does not just satisfy the need for imaginative play. Children can take on the roles of friends at school to explore how they handle problems. This type of play allows children to rehearse for potential conflicts, in a low-risk, low-stress environment.

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Learning Through Play

Your child does not need to watch Baby Einstein or use only certain toys to learn. Gaglani-Isaacs explains, "Play is how children learn, and this learning takes place in many developmental spheres at the same time."

She cites the example of two preschoolers having a teddy bear picnic with their stuffed animals. "As the children set up the cups, fill them with 'tea' or 'juice,' place toy plates and silverware in front of a row of stuffed toys, and engage them in 'conversation,' their brains benefit from developing physically, by manipulating objects and strengthening gross and fine motor skills; cognitively by matching the number of cups/plates to the number of toys; organizationally, by providing one cup and plate per toy; socially, through the art of taking turns in conversation; and linguistically, by talking with the toys and each other, and creating responses for the toys." She asks, "How many other short activities involve quite so much multitasking?"

Playing and Social Development

Children's healthy social development depends on ample opportunities to meet friends at the park, join siblings in activities, spend the evening strategizing over board games or run through the backyard with neighborhood children. "As children engage with one another through play, they learn to compromise, take turns and resolve conflicts. Again, the key is that the environment of play is typically low risk and low stress. This stimulates creativity in problem-solving and conflict resolution in a way that a non-play situation does not afford. There are opportunities to try different solutions without the expectation of getting it right, and this allows children to develop flexibility as they consider the ideas of others as well as their own."

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Physiological Benefits of Play

Gaglani-Isaacs observes one other key benefit of play in children's healthy development. "By engaging in play, children benefit physiologically as well as psychologically. The release of endorphins that comes from engaging in a beloved activity promotes the feeling of wellness and joy, and mitigates the effects of stress as a child becomes absorbed in the chosen activity, whether it is building with Legos, playing with dolls or digging in the dirt with friends."

Play and Imagination

As a play therapist, Gaglani-Isaacs uses play to spark children's imaginations and inspire creative thinking about life's challenges. However, the therapist recognizes that play has the same potential outside of a counseling setting. "Play opens the door for a child's imagination to take flight," she says. "It encourages the exploration of possibilities and promotes creative and healthy problem-solving."

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