Do you remember life before the internet, mobile phones, and gaming systems? For one thing, you had to be more creative. This meant wrapping a towel around your neck as a cape and becoming Superman. Then you fought the evil villain and saved whoever was in peril, which was usually your younger sibling. You amused yourself and perhaps others, too, by pretending to be a mommy or daddy—working around the house or shopping for groceries.
“But as adults, we become focused on the ‘important’ things in life like keeping our family fed and secure,” said Patty Stine, co-founder of Pure Play Every Day, Inc., a non-profit organization that brings play opportunities to children and communities.
While it’s true that life has changed significantly for parents, the importance of imaginative or pretend play remains the same for children. For today’s children, there are plenty of electronic games to hold their attention and keep them on the couch for countless hours. The problem, however, is that technology leaves less room for using your imagination.
“When we play, we are using our physical, intellectual, emotional, and social muscles all simultaneously,” said Stine. “Play is the time when our ‘whole self’ is fully engaged in the task at hand.”
Play between children and their peers or parents is “an opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain,” according to a report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). If a child doesn’t have safe, nurturing relationships in their life and play, safety, and stability are rare, toxic stress disrupts the development of these essential skills. For children in these situations, play is an even more important part of healthy development, the report concludes.
“During playtime, children are more accepting of things going wrong and finding ways to correct them,” said Stine. “This process helps develop problem-solving skills, which leads to computational thinking processes.”
The Era of Play Chats
In recent years, some organizations have embraced technology to share the message about the importance of play. Leading the conversation is the US Play Coalition, which hosts a monthly #WePlayChat on Twitter.
“The monthly #WePlayChat hosted by the US Play Coalition reminds us that play is also vital part of our life,” said Stine. “It also explores the many ways that play is integrated into life around the world.”
The US Play Coalition launched #WePlayChat in 2016 and now engages groups from eight countries on five continents. From Maryland, Stine recently moderated a #WePlayChat that focused on engaging volunteers at play-based events globally.
A Time to Play
There’s no doubt that play, says the AAP report, serves a critical role in children’s development and learning. During the last decade or so, technology has changed the way children play and what parents and families consider adequate playtime. But with so many groups dedicated to promoting it, good old-fashioned imaginative or pretend play still has a future. Just remember that playtime is the perfect time for parents and families to interact with their children. So the next time you and your children have a little leisure time, put away the laptop and pull out the Play-Doh or Legos. Try building the eighth wonder of the world or whatever masterpiece you and your children can imagine together.
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