Letting your kids play and playing along with them is a great way to stimulate their senses and development.

How Does Play Affect the Growth & Development of Children?

by Gina Poirier

Parents who spend their days rushing their kids between endless practices, appointments and performances undoubtedly want their kids to develop into talented and successful adults. But according to child psychologists, structure around the clock isn't the best method for learning. Kids of all ages also need unstructured play time to grow and develop into healthy, happy adults.

1. Social Development

Whether practiced with adults or peers, interactive play helps children learn life-long social skills. According to the journal "Pediatrics," "undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills." This starts as early as toddlerhood -- with the all-important skills of sharing and taking turns -- and continues through adolescence and the complexities of getting along on the playground.

2. Exploration

From the time an infants figure out how to control their hands, they begin gazing at them and putting them -- and other objects -- into their mouths. They want to see colors and contrasts, feel textures and even taste the nuances in the world around them. This desire only grows stronger as children mature and learn to climb trees and crawl into dark corners. Curiosity and exploration naturally helps kids learn about their world and discover and cultivate their interests.

3. Creativity and Imagination

Reading and playing music is one type of skill; writing stories and music is another that can only be learned during unstructured creative time. Imaginative play has proven to stimulate a variety of development skills including language usage, emotional expression, empathy and creative performance -- in childhood and later in life.

4. Problem-Solving

Playtime provides a good environment for children to encounter and solve problems through hands-on practice, which results in the development of new competencies. It's one of the reasons that a baby or young child will repeat the same actions over and over -- to see cause-and-effect relationships at work.

5. Physical Development

Unstructured playtime is an important part of encouraging kids to be active, develop gross motor skills and maintain a healthy body weight. Sending them outside to run, jump, climb, play tag, kick balls and a variety of other fun activities will increase their heart rates and build strength. A review by Dr. Kenneth Kinsburg on the importance of play in the journal "Pediatrics" says, "In contrast to passive entertainment, play builds active, healthy bodies. In fact, it has been suggested that encouraging unstructured play may be an exceptional way to increase physical activity levels in children, which is one important strategy in the resolution of the obesity epidemic."

6. Self-Image and Confidence

Strong bonds between children and their caregivers is an important part of developing kids' self-image and confidence -- and these bonds are cultivated by playing together. According to the journal "Pediatrics," "Children’s developmental trajectory is critically mediated by appropriate, affective relationships with loving and consistent caregivers as they relate to children through play." When adults play with kids, they should be careful not to impose too many adult rules and expectations. Whether you're participating in an imaginary tea party or going on a treasure hunt, let the child lead the way to help her develop her creativity and confidence.

About the Author

Gina Poirier has a professional background in nonprofit administration and management, primarily with youth development organizations. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from the University of Washington and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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