“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” Diane Ackerman
In today’s fast-paced world, even for our children, unrestricted hours of play have been replaced by the mentality of a need for structure. However, without setting aside time for play, which is critical to our children’s development, we will not foster our kids’ growth into well-adjusted adults.
 Playtime, especially for children, promotes an exploration of their world that leads to stronger non-verbal communication skills and teaches valuable social skills they will need for the rest of their lives. Playtime also enables children to learn quick decision making skills, the value of a healthy body, and how to experience relaxation. The National Institute for Play says the need for unstructured play is as “basic and pervasive as sleep”. Some studies, such as with the American Academy of Pediatrics, demonstrate that a recess time during the school day actually makes kids more attentive.
Play has many forms, and as our children grow and develop, it looks different with each stage. Kids progress naturally from solitary play as infants to spectator play and parallel play during their toddler years. During this time, children will observe and play side-by-side without actually working together. Finally, they become fully immersed in associate play and the co-op style of play, taking on roles of leaders and followers, which is how we eventually function as social adults.
How can you help your child engage in meaningful playtime that fosters social and individual development—without succumbing to the constant demands for structure?
Here are some tips to try in your home or classroom:

  1. Step Back. Let your children, no matter how young, learn to entertain themselves. Allow your baby to play on the floor without your help, set up your toddler with blocks and allow his imagination to work, and resist the urge to schedule every hour of your preschooler’s day.
  2. Be a Playmate. Letting your children play with your companionship is as important as allowing them to play alone. They desire your attention, and if given it first thing, they are more likely to engage without you later in the day.
  3. Participate in Playdates. Arrange times your children can play with a friend in your home, at their home, or at the park, and observe how they work together. You’ll see problem solving, arguing and reconciling, and sharing—all skills your kids need to develop.
  4. Set Time for Independent Play. Build a time into your day when the television is turned off and you encourage your children to find an activity they can do alone. Then resist the urge to interrupt, even when the directions are not being followed for the latest Lego creation. Allowing your children the opportunity to solve their own problems, or engage in creativity without constraints, builds character and independence.
  5. Encourage Open-Ended Activities. As adults, we desire structure and organization, but kids often need to have times they can enjoy less restriction. Setting out play dough, art supplies, blocks, or games and letting your children invent their own activities is valuable for the development of their imaginations.

Playtime is meant to be fun, engaging, and relaxing—for you as well as your children. It is a viable component to raising healthy kids who will be equipped for all the world has to offer.