Expert Advice, General

Why Play is Still Important for Older Children

Though it may seem like playing is less important for school-aged children, play is still a crucial part of their development, and they are not getting enough of it.

It is through play that children learn to socialize, communicate, and problem-solve. But once they start school, the time for free play is often almost non-existent.

Schools often have minimal time for recess. Usually, about 20-30 minutes once per day, barely enough time for children to even get into the flow of play.

And outside of school hours, children are often signed up for more adult-led activities that direct their play versus giving them downtime to engage in free play.

In addition to that, add in the ever-increasing time spent on screens, and we are now down to barely any time for free play.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children aged 8-18 spend anywhere from 4-9 hours PER DAY using screens. This includes watching TV, using a tablet, or playing video games on a console or computer. And this statistic is likely to increase as screens are becoming increasingly used inside classrooms and as ways to deliver enrichment content to older children.

So with the rise of time spent on screens in schools (and at home), it’s even more important that older children spend time in play.

Play is a vehicle for developing many skills, such as emotional regulation, communication, flexible thinking, time management, and conflict resolution. These are all skills needed to be successful in school and beyond.

We often hear these skills called “soft skills,” which are not directly taught in schools. However, year after year, colleges and companies reiterate how vital these soft skills are to success in and beyond school.

Here are some soft skills that are developed through play.

Social skills. From an early age, children learn to socialize through play. As they grow older, the types of play may change, but the importance of socializing does not. Playing with others teaches children how to share, take turns, resolve conflicts, communicate with others, and cope with feelings like frustration and disappointment.

Communication skills.

Children also learn communication skills through play. When playing with others, they learn to express themselves verbally and non-verbally. They learn to listen carefully to what others are saying and respond accordingly. They also learn how to negotiate and cooperate with others.

Cognitive skills.

Play also helps children to develop cognitive (thinking) skills. Through play, children learn to think more critically, ask good questions, make decisions, take healthy risks and solve problems.

Executive functioning skills.

Executive functioning skills are important for academic success. These skills include planning, organization, time management, prioritization, and task initiation. Play can help children to develop these skills.  For example, when children play a game, they must plan their moves to win. Building with blocks or Legos forces them to consider what goes where and in what order.

Emotional regulation skills.

Emotional regulation is the ability to manage emotions and impulses. When children play, they often have to deal with various emotions, including happiness, sadness, frustration, and anger. Through play, children learn how to cope with these emotions in healthy ways.

Here are three ways we can encourage play for older children.

1. Embrace boredom.

Communicate with your child about the importance of boredom and how being bored helps increase creativity and gives them space to find themselves. Make sure you aren’t rushing in to save the day the second they exclaim that they are bored. And try not to give in and let them turn to screens to keep themselves entertained.

2. Get outside.

Spend time as a family doing outdoor activities, whether it’s a hike or a family tennis game. Try to model and encourage time spent outdoors to get moving, socialize and have fun. If budget allows, purchasing outdoor play equipment like bikes, basketball hoops, soccer balls, or cool climbing structures (think Ninja lines or similar) are all good ways to entice more outdoor time for kids.

3. Provide opportunities for them to be with friends outside of school.

Nowadays, downtime during the school day is limited, so having time outside of the school day to get together with friends and socialize is key. Try to set the standard that face-to-face time with friends is screen-free time. This will give them the push they need to engage in play.

One of the greatest gifts we can give older children is the gift of play. It may look different than when they were younger, but play is still essential to their development

Alanna Gallo is the founder of Play. Learn. Thrive.

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Written by Alanna Gallo

Alanna Gallo is the founder of Play. Learn. Thrive. She is dedicated to combating parental burnout by empowering parents to move away from Pinterest perfection and embrace a simpler approach to raising children. She is also a mother of four little ones and holds a master’s in teaching from the University of Southern California. You can follow her on Instagram @playlearnthrivekids

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