Play is a child’s work. It is essential for the development of the human brain, which is only twenty-five percent complete at birth. The playful dance between mother and child begins soon after birth when eye movements sync and external stimuli affect the 100 billion neurons that inhabit the infant brain; as many nerve cells as there are stars in the Milky Way.
Play helps neurons connect at the rate of one million per second in the first years of life. It is a process that unfolds developmentally, in stages, from simple to more complex forms. It helps children’s nervous systems develop, and drives the emergence of individual cognition, social skills, and imagination. It is so central to childhood development that inability to play signals that something is wrong, perhaps a diagnosable problem.
One factor that may be limiting our children’s full play potential is our dependence on screens. The sophistication of today’s video content, games, and apps is a double-edged sword, in some cases helping our kids with distance learning and extra-curricular learning, and in other cases leading to a diminished connection to the real world and the transformative power of play.
Here are some insights into why good old-fashioned play—with toys, friends, and crayons, for example—is good for our kids, and some recommendations for what to look for in toys to keep our kids growing and safe.
Why Play is So Important
Play is different from all other activities:
- It is freedom from defined goal orientation, and performance standards; it is not governed by achievement or performance. While play can be part of learning new skills, it is the process that is key, not the outcome per se. This experience of freedom is emotionally fulfilling for kids.
- It defies time constraints and is comprised of many moments of presence and joy, like a “state of flow.” Psychologist Joseph Campbell noted that children at play achieve a state of flow or a state in which self-consciousness disappears and there is a balance between skills and challenges, for example. He famously asked, “What did you do as a child that created timelessness that made you forget time? There lays the myth to live by.”
- It involves the whole self. Every system of perception and feeling is involved in play; play is a whole-brain and individual function. You will not find play located in a specific area of the brain.
- It is transformative, meaning it drives the unfolding of cognitive and imaginative processes. Piaget, the Einstein of child development, taught us that the pleasure of play is connected to logical structures in the brain that unfold over time to help us learn to recognize and understand our environment. In other words, the play has a logical underpinning that manifests itself daily and has survival value.
Healthy play needs to be nurtured and prioritized for our kids. By contrast, online games, YouTube, and TV have limited benefits beyond superficial engagement. It is almost a misnomer to say that a child is “playing” a video game, as the experience is a largely cognitive experience with no muscular and kinesthetic energy being used, like offline forms of play.
In fact, research shows that screen time leads to fatigue and mood swings in many children due to designs that use rapidity of imagery, collapsed frame times, and constant bombardment of stimuli, leaving kids too tired to play.
Many video games offer little for imagination and what I call “coefficient of resistance.” If a child plays at constructing a castle in the dirt or sand, for instance, her imagination is engaged with digging in the ground, combining mental, muscular, and kinesthetic activity. It is a full experience, not a cognitive process alone.
Toys and Play Value
All children, no matter their socioeconomic reality, find objects to use for purposes of play. Sticks, pots and pans, old tires, branches fallen from trees all qualify as uplifting and playful tools. The child’s imagination transforms the most basic of items into a universe for play. Your bed becomes a “trampoline park” in the imagination of a child at play; or a broom becomes a speed racer and old sheets hung over a cardboard box, a palace for imagined characters and stuffies to come to life.
Despite these opportunities to let imagination lead, Americans are buying more than $20 billion worth of toys annually, 90 percent of which are made of plastic. Almost 40 percent of toys gifted to kids during the holiday season are broken by spring. To make matters worse, most toys are destined for landfills as the plastics used to make them are often blended with other materials that are hard to recycle.
If you’re looking for more sustainable options, you can find toy brands such as Green Toys that are made from recycled or natural materials that are non-toxic and you can look for high “play value” toys, that engage your child’s imagination. Sustainable options for toys will also give you the assurance that harmful chemicals such as phthalates are not being used to make them. Look for toys made from materials like silicone, bamboo, wood, organic cotton, and phthalate-free recycled plastics.
Buying second-hand, at yard sales, or accepting hand-me-downs is another way to keep toys out of landfills. In fact, the cheaper plastic trinkets that our kids seem to amass, many of which are merchandised as “impulse” buys close to the cash register in stores, are great for boxing up and sending to nieces and nephews who will love them again. I also encourage my kids to set a price for old and neglected toys that we either give away or sell at a yard sale, getting them to participate in passing these toys on and teaching them that they still have value.
The best guidance, however, in buying toys is to consider their play value; asking yourself how a particular toy can engage and develop your child’s imagination, or their natural tendencies to play. Toys that stretch the imagination, like building blocks, arts and craft supplies, clay, balls, and cards have the highest play value. A project like this MAIKA DIY Pouch Stencil Kit can also be a great way to set your kids up for an engaging hour or two.
You can also find great playsets and costumes that facilitate imagination play, which tends to hold a child’s attention for much longer. Or get your kids outdoors with the toys you choose for them. Outdoor playsets, wagons, jump ropes, and games like cornhole will ensure your kids get some vitamin D and engage their muscles in play. Or try a simple treasure hunt in your neighborhood where you and your kids explore the world around you.
When buying for infants and toddlers, consider their physical development and their relative vulnerability to toxins, given their tendency to put everything in their mouths. Art cards, cloth books, and lovies that are graphically colored or black and white are stimulating for babies’ eyes and brains, and highly tactile and interactive toys or ones that encourage movement, such as the zeki learning Sea Habitat Activity Mat, are also great for their physical and cognitive development.
Play is at the root of experimentation and discovery and the ability to contribute new things to the world. Without the human ability to play there would be few inventions to move us forward. Play is at the root of culture. It’s time to pay more attention to the importance of play, and don’t forget that adults can benefit from play in the same ways that our children do. Adult and child will both benefit from being each other’s best playmate.