Child clinicians have always been aware of the importance of play. And by play I don’t mean playing a video game or staring at a screen! Some studies are now indicating that the average nine-year-old spends 35 hours in front of a TV, and another 10 hours per week in front of other screens. Researchers are beginning to talk about a “Play Deficit Disorder.” Peter Gray in his 2014 TED talk offers a succinct and convincing argument that play is declining and what the consequences are of this decline in play.
So what is play? According to the United Kingdom’s Children’s Play Information Service:
Play includes a range of self-chosen activities, undertaken for their own interest, enjoyment and the satisfaction that results for children;
Very young children, even babies, show playful behavior when they explore sound and simple actions and experiment with objects of interest;
Play activities are not essential to meet basic physical survival needs. But play does seem to support children’s emotional well-being as well as a wide range of learning within their whole development;
Children can play alone, but often they play with other children and with familiar adults. Even very young children engage in simple give-and-take or copying games with their peers, older siblings or with adults;
A playful quality in activities is shown by the exercise of choice, enjoyable repetition and invitation to others to join the play.
In the 1930s Vygotsky noted the centrality and importance of play in normal development. In a fascinating TED talk “Play Is More Than Just Fun” Stuart Brown noted that not only does play make us happy, but it also makes us smarter. His studies of criminals revealed that many of the folks that go on to commit horrible crimes against their fellow humans have been deprived of developmentally appropriate play.
On a behavioral and social level play allow children to experiment with social behaviors and interactions. Links between children’s propensity to play and their development of cooperative skills, social competence, and peer acceptance have been empirically established. Play allows children to experiment with social interactions and behaviors. Piaget theorized that make-believe play provides children opportunities to reproduce real-life conflicts, to work out ideal resolutions for their own pleasure, and to ameliorate negative feelings. Developmental psychologists suggest play constitutes an emotionally significant context through which themes of power and dominance, aggression, nurturance, anxiety, pain, loss, growth, and joy can be enacted productively.
Not only is play important for development of social and emotional intelligence, it is also necessary for the development of the brain. All mammals play, and animal research has clearly demonstrated the deleterious effects of no play. In his TED talk Stuart Brown reported that when play is suppressed in rats their survival behaviors become altered, and when exposed to a threat they hide as they should, but they never venture out from their hiding spot and subsequently die. In humans, play changes the connections of neurons in the prefrontal cortex, and it is these neurons that play an important role in executive functioning.
So what is a child therapist to do? Winnicott argued that playing is a necessary part of working with children: “Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together. The corollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist is directed towards bringing the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play.”
It seems that we now find ourselves in a position of teaching many of our clients how to play! Other opportunities to promote play may arise when counseling parents or consulting in schools. There is probably not a single child clinician who hasn’t cringed when told that a child is routinely punished by withholding recess. If anything, we should be giving our clients more play time when they are challenged to regulate themselves in a classroom. IEPs and 504 plans should note that recess should not be used as a negative consequence. Many of our clients are over scheduled, and parents may need help prioritizing what activities the child is enrolled in. And of course, screen time needs to be regulated.