Why is it that when we become adults, we discourage our children from playing even though we have fond memories of playing with our friends in our childhood? If as parents we understand the reason why children play and how it transforms them, we will no longer dislike the wonderful human activity called play.
In simplest terms, play is something that children do for pleasure. Play is any activity in which the child participates spontaneously and out of her own will. If you think about it, even simple things like kicking a can while walking, or an infant grasping at the cot mobile, or a kid jumping over stones are playing. “Chor-Police” or Ludo or Cricket are more complex forms of play. But note that if the same activity is ordered by an adult, it is no longer play.
To understand the importance of play for us, you must understand the science of evolution. Practically in all larger species, whether birds or animals, the young ones play. Puppies, kittens, baby elephants—they all play a lot! So, why is play a universal behaviour on our planet? The simple and straight answer is because it is extremely useful.
Playing helps young ones develop the physical and psychological characteristics that will help them live successfully as a part of their society, be it animal or human.
Here are the various ways in which play helps transform children.
Playing games and sports helps exercise and develop many large and small muscles. Outdoor and vigorous play leads to better metabolism and physical development. They also develop gross motor skills, fine motor skills, and psychomotor skills. Activities like balancing on rails, hanging from branches, jumping over fences, running and chasing, and riding bicycles improve muscle and hand–eye coordination.
Even infants play. Our first social interactions are the playful exchanges with our mother. When children play with other children, they develop a wide range of social skills, such as sharing, cooperation, negotiation, seeing things from others’ perspective, and the ability to regulate behaviour.
Children express emotions like delight, anger, fear, distress, etc. when they play. While playing with others, they also learn the rules of how and when to express various emotions: for instance, should I cheer when someone falls or should I act supportive; how should I act when I win, and how, when I lose. Emotional regulation is a crucial psychological skill that children learn while playing.
Play provides the environment in which children try out novel ideas, which leads to the development of new mental structures and better cognitive skills. When playing with friends, children challenge themselves and sometimes go beyond their actual cognitive development.
When children play, they talk, and in the process, they learn language. From the babbling of babies when they play with their parents to multi-member team games, children pick up words, phrases, and even the nuances of how to use them from their playmates. They learn which tone should be used in which situation. Children also learn and practice things like taking turns to talk, using subtle suggestions, sarcasm, and gradually changing the topic of conversation.
When kids play, then often argue and quarrel. In the process, they learn what kind of behaviour is acceptable and unacceptable to others in society. Play helps them acquire the moral structure that a member of society should have. Kids learn to sacrifice, like letting go of their turn to allow a friend bat, and they learn honesty, like not cheating at Ludo when their playmate is distracted. This way, play helps them rise to a higher level of morality.
In sum, play and playing are as much or more important than formal education in preparing children to face the world as adults. As parents and teachers, we must understand this and provide children with the autonomy, environment, and encouragement to indulge in play.