Playing to Learn: How to Play with Purpose

What image do you see when you think of your children playing?

Perhaps you think about them competing in a sport, scrambling about on a playground, or coloring a picture. What you may not realize however, is that these are very different types of play that produce different developmental benefits.

Structured activities–such as organized sports–result in very different learning and education than open-ended activities–such as creative, child-led play. Whereas organized activities teach things such as collaboration with teammates and healthy competition with others, free play teaches a set of skills that are based on an internal sense of competence and control. A major difference in these types of play is that structured activities come with a set of rules. They are directed by others, usually adults, and do not put a child in charge of the game.

Open-ended play, on the other hand, is child-directed play that puts a young person in control.  This type of play teaches skills such as problem-solving, self-reflection, cognitive development, and self-efficacy. Through free play, a child learns that they have a place where their voice matters. To engage in an activity where a child’s thoughts and feelings are allowed to influence the world around them, imparts a message that they are needed in, and valuable to, the world.

Recent research suggests that such open-ended play is even more beneficial for social and cognitive development than its structured counterpart, and yet, this type of free play has declined drastically over the last half-century. During this same period, we have also seen steady increases in the demands placed upon children’s schedules, as we have taken the misguided value that we put on being “so busy” in adulthood, and extended that to our youth as well. We tend to pack our kids’ schedules with school, tutoring, sports, music lessons, and more, and the result is oftentimes, that both parties—parents and kids—end up exhausted and have no margin for rest or spontaneous fun.  And while we cannot state causality, we can most certainly state correlation between this decline in free time and creative play and the corresponding steady increase in depression and anxiety rates among our young children and teens.

If you find yourself wanting to incorporate more play in your child’s life, here are some pointers:

  • We all have finite time and limited resources and capacities. When we say “yes” to an activity, we are, by default, saying “No” to others. Making room for play begins with prioritizing activities. Perhaps your child can play one sport this year, rather than three. Or perhaps it’s worth taking a chance that your child will benefit more from free time than tutoring or summer school. Each family needs to make the choice that’s right for them, but be intentional and try to remember not to de-value the importance of play.
  • Create a time and space where your child can be free from distractions. That means no video games, televisions, cell phones, or other technology that engages the brain in a way that decreases creativity and attention to exploration.
  • Keep in mind: the power of free play is that it is purposeful without being prescribed. As an adult, it is wonderful to engage in play with your child, but do so in a way that lets them determine the rules and express themselves freely.
  • Offer praise and encouragement. Did your child do something that you think was “wrong”, did they become frustrated because they couldn’t find a solution to a problem, did they make up new rules to a board game? Refrain from telling them that there is a “right” way to play, affirm them that their mistakes mean they are trying, exclaim how proud you are of what they created that is new and uniquely them!
  • Model the importance of free play for your children. Because here’s a secret: this type of play is effective for adults too!

And lastly,

  • If your child is experiencing significant emotional distress or behavioral problems, consider seeking professional help from a trained therapist. The intentional learning-objectives created in play therapy is what makes this type of therapy so powerful and beneficial for children as they spend time in a safe place where exploration is encouraged, deepened emotional insight and increased sense of competence can occur, and problem-solving skills can be learned. At Sycamore Kids, our play therapy resources have been individually researched and selected for their therapeutic application.  Each toy and every game allows our therapists to engage with a young client in a way that promotes skill-building and identity formation. If your child is struggling, know that help is available!


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