Power of Play in the Summer

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

After a long school year, children anxiously await the opportunity to do whatever they want to do in that magical time called summer. Summertime is when life slows down a bit and there is no homework and fewer scheduled activities. Summer is the perfect time for play.

However, play is often viewed as frivolous and a waste of time. Many well intentioned parents sign their children up for various camps that can address a range of skill building activities. These camps and other activities can quickly occupy most of the children’s summer.

While camps can help children develop new interests and areas of expertise, play can also provide a range of benefits. Play allows children to learn how to negotiate with others, solve problems, and communicate effectively. Everyone can remember time spent with other children growing up having arguments regarding the rules to a particular game or who was allowed to rescue the princess. These arguments required negotiating a solution that everyone would find acceptable. These negotiation skills are critical for children to develop so when they get older they will have the skills to get along with others.

Sometimes children can get overwhelmed with the various demands and pressures that are put upon them. Play gives them an outlet to express their thoughts and feelings that does not depend on words. This can be so effective that psychologists often use play with children in therapy which allows children to resolve some of their issues.

With play, children have an outlet to imagine and be creative. Many of the most lucrative professions in the adult world depend on being creative. Parents can help with encouraging imaginative play by getting toys that do not have artificial boundaries. This means toys that don’t already have a story written about them that might restrict children’s imagination or built-in rules that exist in toys like computer games. Examples of toys that are more conducive to opening children’s imagination include egg cartons, blocks, boxes, art supplies, paints, chalk, and puppets.

Parents can help encourage children’s play in a few other ways, particularly during the summer when time is more flexible. The first way to help is to give children the time and opportunity for free play. This may mean cutting back a bit on all of the scheduled activities. It also means providing the material and toys that allow for make believe play.

A second way is to give children room to play. Play is not always quiet and children should have the opportunity to be loud, laugh, and make a mess. The outdoors can be a perfect place for children’s play, particularly in the summer.

A third way is to let children play both with and without you. When children play alone, it encourages their independence and the ability to make their own decisions. When parents play with their children, it allows parents to get a deeper insight into their world and also enhances the attachment and connection between the two. If parents do play with their children, remember to allow children to lead. Play is not the time for parents to lead or instruct, it is about providing support and encouragement.

As summertime quickly approaches, make some plans to allow children to have time for unstructured play. It provides a range of benefits including helping children learn how to negotiate, cope with negative events, and to be creative. Did I also mention that play is just fun?

This article was published in the Richmond Register Health Beat Magazine in May 2014.

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