Is there anything sweeter than watching your child’s imagination take flight? Creative play is part of what makes childhood fun, but it’s also important—and essential—work. Playing builds the skills that help kids grow into capable, competent people. “We know from research that play is young children’s natural language, benefitting their cognitive and social development,” says Rebecca Smotherman, a registered play therapist and director of Missouri State University’s Play Therapy Institute. “Play is the way in which kids act out their experiences and make connections that help them understand their world.”
Here are some research-proven benefits of active play:
Play boosts creativity. Play allows children to create and explore a world that they can master. In their imagined worlds, they can be the superhero that outsmarts the villain and saves the day. Playing adult or imaginary roles helps them conquer fears—and practice courage, creativity, and problem-solving. “Creative play gives children a chance to express themselves before they’ve developed a way to fully do so verbally,” says Smotherman.
Play helps kids develop their interests. There’s nothing wrong with scheduled activities or exposure to new experiences; however, multiple studies show that free time to explore allows kids to discover their own areas of interest. Worried your children are too young to know what they want? It may surprise you to know that children can learn a lot about themselves, including their likes and dislikes, even at an early age, says Smotherman.
Play helps kids become resilient. Trying new activities or skills helps children build confidence—and the emotional resiliency they’ll need in life. The tower they were building might not have gone exactly as planned, but they may decide it’s worth playing with anyway—or think of an alternative game. “Kids learn quickly through play that they’re able to come up with their own ideas, and that builds confidence,” says Smotherman.
Play has awesome social benefits. Play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills, like speaking up for a turn on the backyard slide or a chance to steer the pretend spaceship. Says Smotherman: “Through playing with peers, they’re learning how to self-regulate their emotions and process their feelings.”
Play is natural exercise! No surprise here: Active play builds healthy bodies, so it’s worth taking time every day to pull away from electronic devices. Your child will be getting stronger while she’s running around a park or busily moving the couch cushions around the living room. Most of all, though, she’ll be creating some of her—and your—best memories!