Why play?


Last updated 3/12/2024 at 11:13am

Recently I came across a reminder that the Harry Potter books are not about never failing, but rather are about rising every time we fall. The story about the Sorcerer’s Stone is a great illustration of how overcoming obstacles creates growth. Those words took me immediately back to the article, “Ten Things You Should Do Now So Your Kids Know How to Deal with Failure,“ by Dr. Jill M. Richardson, and her emphasis on the value of failing. A primary piece of that article emphasized the value of play and what it teaches kids.

Kids and adults relish the idea of more leisure time. Why is that? For kids, it means more time to play. We adults look to it to unwind, visit with friends, and do things we enjoy.

Today I’m talking about unstructured or free play and why it is so important. Kids will tell you, “It’s fun!” Watching them, it is obvious much more than “fun” is happening. Educators often refer to play as the kids’ job, something they engage in very seriously.

Kids are born curious, which allows them to learn, explore, and discover. In play, a whole world opens up to kids when they are encouraged to explore.

Allow your memories to return to earlier times when you jumped on your bike, joined friends in a vacant lot, and explored. Think about all the discoveries you made and what you learned.

I’m sure some of that exploring happened while you played alone. Remember the excitement of discovering something on your own, and the joy of sharing what you learned. How easy it is for us adults to forget this and to rush in with suggestions of things to do when our kids say, “I’m bored.” A habit hard to break.

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I remember very clearly when I and three others would gather with our dolls under a weeping willow tree that hid our daily Pauly Pigtails club. I don’t remember what we played, but I still remember their names, Kathleen, Maxine, and Patty.

In play, kids learn how to make friends. They negotiate, take turns, consider alternative ideas, and compromise. Maybe we need to send all the leaders of the world to a Play Conference where they could learn to do all the above.

And imagination! Think of how many times you use your imagination to get through your day.

Where did you learn to do that? Most likely through free play, starting in your earliest years, when you turned a block into a telephone or a box into a playhouse. Every time your fire engine sprayed imaginary water on a burning building, or you fed pretend invisible soup to your doll, you were using your imagination.

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Not too many years ago, my now college-age granddaughters, shared a delightful meal with me made up of twigs, rocks, leaves, and sand. Today one is studying architecture and the other law. What in their growing-up prepared them for these intricate studies? I believe the creativity and imagination developed years earlier in play contributed a lot.

In an earlier column, we looked at the importance of our kids learning to cope, so when things went wrong, they could surface and move on. Think of how when things don’t go as planned in play, kids explore possibilities and come up with new ideas. As the analysis of the Harry Potter books remind us, much is possible when we know how to cope.

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In the scenario of jumping on your bike, do you remember the instructions of, “be home in time for dinner?” Does that ever happen today? Most likely not. We parents are fearful of all that might happen. Think of what our kids are missing by not having the freedom to explore as we did.

Do you remember the rules for Hide and Seek, Red Rover Red Rover, Kick the Can, or I Spy? I bet you do. Have you played these with your kids? Do they even know how to play them? Too often play involves gaming on an iPad or computer, alone, or in conversation with a competitor on the phone. Or play means signing our 6-year-old up for soccer, so he or she will be in the loop when they enter middle school, able to compete.

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I’m not campaigning against organized sports. I’m only suggesting they be delayed long enough for undirected, free play to take place. My four kids all swam competitively, so I’m very aware that much of what kids learn from free or undirected play happens on teams. Relationships, taking turns, considering alternative ideas, and developing negotiating skills all take place. Probably the most important skill being developed is how to cope when things go wrong. Winning or getting a better time doesn’t always happen.

Even if competitive sports are an important part of their day, look for opportunities for “free” play. It teaches so much that will enhance their lives for years to come.

Edie Jones is the retired Executive Director of Together for Children, has a master’s degree in Adult Education, is the former owner/director of Camp Tamarack, and has worked with children her entire adult life.

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