Serious Business of Play

    Kids and the Power of Imagination

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    For kids, pretend play is one of the best forms of free entertainment there is. Children effortlessly produce dramatic tales with thick plots, humorous characters, and giggles galore. We often take children’s play for granted. However, a closer look at the science
    of play reveals how essential it is for children’s development.

    Researchers from many disciplines have worked to understand the role of imaginative play in children’s lives. Experts in child development, psychology, and neuroscience have gone into their labs and onto the world’s playgrounds to learn about the intrinsically satisfying work of play. Play is a joyful, spontaneous flow we enter, often with another person. While we know how to enjoy play, we often place it below other priorities on the to-do list. This is not surprising, given the growing demands for adults and kids to achieve tangible results, even in our recreation time.

    Scientists who have studied play agree that it is frivolous to a degree. Obviously, play is not focused on matters of survival, like gathering food or fighting off predators. However, as author and child development expert Joseph Chilton Pearce once said, “Play is in the service of survival.” Once people feel safe and relaxed, they can truly express themselves through spontaneous play. This is when the magic begins.

    Playing lets kids simulate problems without the real danger. We can experiment with feelings that may be otherwise too overwhelming. People of all ages have much more autonomy than usual in their play. People who play together also develop a strong fondness for one another. We know that play has its own circuitry in the brain and is correlated strongly to the emotion of joy.

    In my work, I have seen first-hand how play helps children relieve their stress, work through problems, regulate strong feelings, sharpen their thinking, and soak in the benefits of important relationships. Just as adults need to tell about their day (sometimes more than once if it was a particularly difficult one), children need to play about their day and the issues affecting them. For example, your child may represent a recurring scary dream with a belligerent dinosaur, play the role of a police officer to order the dinosaur to jail, and ask you to stand guard over the prisoner. The child may then gather a pile of pretend treasures as a reward for his hard work. At the end of this play sequence, the child emerges content, calm, and empowered.

    A parent joining in a child’s play meets a need as well. Playing together is a shared experience of delight. It helps parents better understand their child’s inner world and helps the child feel more secure. Children feel an immense sense of being understood and accepted by parents who set aside time to play with them. This may translate to fewer behavioral problems, smoother transitions, and better quality family time.

    While organized play and playful learning both have their place in children’s lives, the good stuff for the brain is unstructured free play. Be sure to prioritize regular time for both your child and you to do this. Take a break from electronics, learning materials, organized sports, and games. Provide your child with simple toys that can be used creatively. Let your child take the lead on the themes and stories he wants to portray, as well as playing out the solutions to his conflicts. Lastly, try to enjoy your children exactly as they present themselves. Jump into the imaginary world they create without trying to change it. Be forewarned: You may find yourself forgetting about your worries and actually having fun! All the while, trust that this natural process is helping your child to thrive in all ways possible.

    Your Child and the Gift of Play!

    In a few minutes of imaginative play, a child can take a real-world problem, turn it into a humorous storyline and emerge as the hero. Children need no training to do this – only the right supplies. In my experiences as a parent and a play therapist, I’ve found there are a few essential ingredients children need to do this powerful work.

    Start with a relatively clutter-free play area. Arrange the toys so your child can easily see and reach them. Try to stick with simple play materials that inspire creativity, like blocks, dress-up clothes, small toy figures, and objects – even sticks and boxes! Include pretend versions of adult favorites such as keys, cell phones, and kitchen supplies. Keep in mind that the best toys for imaginative play are simple enough to be used in countless ways. For example, a jump rope may be put to use as a zip-line for an adventurous doll, or to tie up captives in a dungeon. Creative play materials don’t have to be costly. They can be purchased or found at dollar and discount stores, yard sales, thrift stores, and certainly, in your own closet. You can also help kids use inexpensive materials to create their own toys: use socks to create interesting puppets; decorate a box with dividers to create a house or castle; or make a wooden spoon into a microphone.

    If you are looking for ideas, the independent toy stores in Richmond love to help people choose toys for imaginary play. Remember, you are the expert on your lifestyle, your space, and your child’s interests. Use this insight when organizing and stocking your play area. The result will be a play space that is comforting, personalized, and inspiring for you and your child.

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    Mary Beth Murray
    Mary Beth Murray is a mother and licensed clinical social worker with more than fifteen years of experience helping children and families. She works with clients through Partners in Parenting in Richmond, specializing play therapy, parent consultations, family therapy, and individual therapy for children, teens, and young adults.