The role of play in a child’s life has been undermined by our society, it seems. Children have historically played with other children as a way to learn, socialize, and develop their little bodies. Running, jumping, hiding, skipping, etc. provide children with the opportunity to exercise not only their muscles but their minds.
Particularly, if we let them tap into their creativity and decide what kind of game they want to play, we will be amazed with the things they can come up. Nothing is out of limits. In their imagination, they can grow wings that allow them to go places filled with adventures — even though they will still be physically in our backyard.
By freely playing with other kids, they will learn negotiating skills (who goes first or the rules they want to set, for example) and decision-making (what they choose to play); they will identify what’s fair and what’s not fair and will sometimes struggle with something that doesn’t feel right to them. They’ll be able to touch, feel, smell, laugh, and even cry and argue as they play, and with this, they’ll learn their limits. Remember, when you were a little kid, all the fun you had when you played, with your friends, whatever you wanted to play?
Don’t take me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with organized outdoor activities! However, these activities are not a substitute for free-play time.
Now, our job as a parents is a dual one: to play with them and become like a child again and, at the same time, to remember that we’re the parents, and there to guide them. Let’s not be confused. Guiding them is not telling them what to play, and certainly it is not organizing them as to how to play it. Let them be the leaders. Of course, and depending on how wild their creativity may get, you will have to explain to them why jumping off the roof is not a safe thing to do, why making fun of one of their peers is not nice, and why tagging someone’s property is disrespectful. But, after you’ve guided them, you go back to play like another kid.
We are aware of the many risks today’s world presents for our children if they are running freely around the neighborhood as many of us used to do back in the day. And, because of these risks, we tend to keep them inside the house, in front of a screen (TV or any other piece of technology) which contributes to antisocial behaviors including aggressiveness, health problems including weight-related issues, mental health problems including depression, and sleep-pattern alterations, among other problems. If lurking dangers stop you from encouraging your child to go out and play, remember that we still have parks, backyards, and schools’ open spaces where we can let them play for a couple of hours every day, if possible, before they get to preschool and even after.
Children need to tire themselves out with outdoor activities. When they do, there are multiple benefits that we as parents get to enjoy: They won’t be as restless at home, they will be more alert and focused in general, they will be more positive, and they will also want to go to bed earlier! Their social skills will be increased, and simply for the reason that you joined them in their play, a very different bond is created, and you become part of their in-circle. This bond has the potential, if you help cultivate it, to make a huge difference in your relationship with your child in the years to come.
Happy play time!