David Packman provides us with a discussion on the importance of play in the development of a child.
The concept of play has changed a lot in recent times. With the advent of video games and electronic devices of all shapes and sizes, the simplicity and necessity of good old-fashioned playtime can often get lost in the mire. For the purposes of this discussion, play should be taken to mean “free play” – separated in time and space (i.e. not “real” and with no specific duration), unpredictable and an end unto itself. Imaginative, creative and free-spirited. Away from the backlit glow of the electronic screen.
I have always been curious about the psychology behind why we are compelled to play. It’s innate and driven by an internal life force. More recently, I have had the absolute joy of watching my seven-month-old son develop and I can’t help but be fascinated by how he plays.
For example, now he is old enough to sit in his highchair, my son has become very fond of purposely dropping things over the side and then leaning over to try and see where they went. Once the item is replaced, he snorts and laughs and then simply repeats the process. Never concerned or unhappy that his toy is missing – as he might be in other circumstances – he is simply curious, comfortable in dealing with the issue. It is a game of losing things but then regaining them, all done in a manner he can control.
In “The Pleasure Principle”, Sigmund Freud perceived this as a way a child manages being left alone. It gives them a way of gamifying an unpleasant event in that the first part of the game is the parent leaving the room and the second is their gleeful return.
In essence, play is nature’s way of teaching children the basic skills they need to grow up. Have you ever witnessed a child playing “mom and dad” where one child may have a slight accident that would otherwise invoke crying? If the child is pretending to be “mom”, she will carry on without complaining, exactly as she has seen her own mother do – hopefully without the expletive! It’s all part of the game.
In fact, play is so crucial that all animals do it. It begs the questions as to why young animals would engage in such behaviour when it puts them at risk of the elements and potential predators. It’s simply because play is so critical to their development that it is truly worth the risk. The downside of not learning these skills is vastly more detrimental to their life.
Fundamentally, play can be viewed as a need to interact with the physical environment and that observing the effect of this demonstrates competence and confidence and maintains a constant flow of information – all of which could also be described as simple arousal-seeking – or fun.
As a child grows grow older, they move towards more complex games that involve a level of formality (rules, for example) and certain outcomes such as a winner or loser.
When their personalities begin to more fully develop, children create challenges, often aimed at proving themselves, be it through uncomfortable endurance or other such unusual feats. Competitions emerge around who can stop breathing or stare without blinking for the longest.
The next evolution is regulated competition; sport.
It’s true, children’s sporting activities can be a significant financial burden, the early weekend mornings can be rather off-putting and the constant travel to-and-fro can quickly become complicated. However, when considering the lifetime value children get from playing sport – if it’s within reach – it’s definitely all worth it.
Aside from much-needed physical activity and time away from screens, children learn a great deal on the sporting field – skills they need for the rest of their lives – such as being part of a team and working together towards a common goal, personal commitment, the ability to encourage others and, importantly, how to win or lose with respect and humility.
Team sports also allow children to develop friendships outside their immediate school or neighbourhood group, and it provides them with much-needed structure and routine.
Simply put, children need to play in order to grow up. It’s one of the most important activities they undertake in order to develop the skills they need to thrive. Best of all, it will provide the whole family with treasured and lifelong memories.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Andy
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