Summer has passed and school is back in session. Traditionally this has meant a significant change in routine – lazy days, late-night outdoor activities, sleeping in and the freedoms of summer are all replaced with schedules, structure, places to be and things to do. In past years, kids approach the fall recharged and ready to dive in after a summer filled with activity and play! However, this year it all looks and feels different for kids, parents, families, and school staff. Living under quarantine since March has taken its toll. Kids have been experiencing high levels of boredom and there are many concerns about the effects of children getting too much screen time.

So how do we instill excitement, creativity, inquiry, exploration and help children thrive all year long and especially under the current circumstances? PLAY!

Play is a Necessity
Research has shown there are tremendous benefits to play. Play is defined as activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, results in joyful discovery and there are no designated outcomes (win/lose). Play supports the 21st century skills of problem-solving, collaboration and creativity, all of which are essential for success in and out of the classroom. There are multiple benefits for engagement in play activities and it is essential for promoting healthy child development. Benefits include:

  • Enhances brain structures and function
  • Promotes development of executive function skills
  • Support development of self-regulation skills
  • Fosters pro-social skills
  • Enhances cognitive and language skills
  • Facilitates parent engagement
  • Promotes safe, stable, and nurturing relations
  • Improves life course trajectory!

Given the multiple benefits of play, it is imperative that we find time in our day to fit in play. As Kay Redfield Jamison so eloquently stated: “Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.”

Play and the Feel-Good Hormones
Play has the potential to unlock the powerful feel-good hormones in our brain and change the way our brain responds to the signals it receives. Stimuli enters the brain and is processed in the amygdala, the Palace Guard, whose job it is to protect and ensure safety. Next it goes to the hypothalamus, the Thermostat, a key area that plays a crucial role in many important functions, including releasing hormones, regulating body temperature, maintaining daily physiological cycles, controlling appetite, managing of sexual behavior and regulating emotional responses (Healthline, March 1, 2018). Research has shown that play can trigger the hypothalamus to release the feel-good hormones – endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin – all of which have many positive mental health benefits. These hormones can improve our mood, reduce stress and result in feeling more alive and vibrant.

Play Exercises Executive Functions
Why is play so important for the frontal lobes? That’s easy – no play, no changes in those neurons. It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain’s executive functioning, which has the critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems. Creative play exercises the executive functions! Teaching students how to play games can help them develop the executive function skills necessary to manage complex cognitive processes.

However, to produce this sort of brain development, children need to engage in plenty of so-called “creative” play. No coaches, no umpires, no rule books. (Hamilton, J., 2014) Pretend play is one type of play for kids and increases two crucial skills: self-regulation (impulses, emotions, attention) and reason counterfactually (make inferences about events that have not actually occurred). Creative play also encourages flexible use of materials like blocks, paper, arts and crafts, and writing materials. Other examples of creative play include:

  • Playing on playground equipment, climbing, swinging, running around
  • Playing make-believe and dress-up
  • Reading and looking at books they enjoy, not as part of homework or study
  • Storytelling and acting out stories
  • Camping in the backyard
  • Creating plays, songs, dances

Let’s Talk About Stress
With so much uncertainly in our world today, children and adults are experiencing high levels of stress. Research indicates that toxic stress can disrupt the development of executive function skills and learning pro-social behavior – both are essential for children to thrive. High amounts of play are associated with low levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone,” which causes an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure.  Play also activates norepinephrine which improves brain plasticity which is the brain’s ability to rewire itself. High levels of creative play and lower levels of cortisol equal a win-win for all!

Add Some Play to Your Day!
So how much time is needed to reap the benefits of play? Research conducted with a small group of 4-5-year olds found that just 10-20 minutes of free play enhanced the attention of students in the classroom (Pelligrini and Holmes, 2006). Countries with high achieving academic performance like Sweden, Finland, China, and Japan have built more play time in their school day, adding as little as a 10 minute break for every 50 minutes, to enhance student performance. A lesson we can certainly benefit from learning!

You’re Never Too Old to Play!
Play is not just for children and adults who engage in play also reap the benefits. Regular play can relieve stress, improve brain function, stimulate the mind and boost creativity, and improve relationships and connections with others.

Play is also important at work! Research has shown that places of work that incorporate opportunities for employees to participate in “play” activities have high retention rates and more satisfied employees. Play at work boosts productivity and innovation, encourages teamwork, and can even help you see problems in new ways. (Lawrence Robinson, Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. and Jennifer Shubin, June 2019)

So, how do we make time to play? You need to schedule time to play!  Try these four simple steps to add more play into your day:

  1. Make time in your schedule for play
  2. Turn off electronics – phones, computer, iPad,
  3. Be fully present
  4. Appreciate and enjoy your time together

As the American Academy of Pediatrics report notes, some of the best interactions between parents and kids occur during downtime—just talking, preparing meals together, working on a hobby or art project, playing sports together, or being fully immersed in child-centered play. Start making play a priority today for you and your family. Get out there and play; be silly, dance, sing, create!