Why is play such an important part of a child’s life?
During the first few years of a child’s life, their brain is growing and changing at a rapid rate. When children are raised in overly stressful environments their brains and bodies go into constant fight/flight/freeze mode. When this occurs, other emotions like imagination, curiosity, creativity, and play are put in the background. These emotions are pivotal for the development of healthy social and emotional well-being.
I work with many families who want their children to grow up and become resilient and well-rounded adults. Part of the struggle is that many parents disagree on how to achieve this. All though these efforts are well intended, they may not have the impact that the parents are hoping for. Some parents may over-indulge their children, while others set so many limits that the child does not have any opportunities to make mistakes. Another challenge is that each child is different, and therefore what works for one child may not work for another. Incorporating play into children’s everyday life is an important aspect for them developing resiliency and becoming well-rounded.
Through play, children learn how to interact with the world around them in an enjoyable way. They can use their imaginations to develop storylines, characters and build relationships with parents, siblings, and other youth. They can also learn about cause and effect through taking risks and learning about the consequences.
There are many ways we can incorporate play into our child’s life. Some activities will be structured: meaning youth have a set activity that comes with certain expectations and guidelines (example; bowling, gymnastics, music, dance, etc.), while others may be unstructured, where the child has more control over what they do (free time after dinner, or at the park). Certain children do better with structure versus unstructured activities. For example, some children who struggle to find activities to occupy themselves, may struggle during unstructured time and rely on others to entertain them. We can use play to help children find ways to keep themselves busy and explore their own interests.
Play can also be a powerful tool when working with survivors of trauma. When we grow up in the fight/flight/freeze mode, we lose access to those feelings of curiosity, creativity, and imagination. A part of healing from this trauma, can be finding ways to incorporate these feelings back into our lives. This is one of the many reasons as to why music, art and dance are often incorporated into therapy.
The key point is that play is an essential aspect for developing social and emotional regulation skills, connecting with others, and building self-confidence. When healing from trauma, we can also get in-touch with our inner child to relearn or develop these skills later in life