5 Reasons Why Play Is So Important, As Explained By Experts

The University of Washington shares new research on the importance of play and child development

Two children at playtime

“Play” is one of the watchwords for parents right now. We’ve heard that it’s the work of childhood, that it's the birthplace of individuals, that it's in short supply. Perhaps you’ve even watched a TED talk or two on the merits of play.

The topic took center stage at the University of Washington’s (UW) College of Education’s EDU Talks on Nov. 3. UW faculty members gave 5-minute TED-style talks about their research on play and learning at this event co-hosted by the Pacific Science Center. Here’s what I learned:

1. Play heals.

Plato tells us that we can discover more about a person in an hour of play than we do during a year of conversation. During her presentation, UW associate professor and director of the School Psychology Program Janine Jones shared the story of a 7-year-old she worked with. The child hadn’t spoken in months but began to talk as, together, Jones and the child used blocks to build a swimming pool (Jones knew this child’s father cleaned pools for a living). Jones also shared how, in play, a victim of bullying can learn new ways of effectively responding to a bully.

2. Play teaches.

Assistant dean of Teacher Education Programs Patrick Sexton explored how theater can teach educators how to build community and inspire students to collaborate. During his presentation, Sexton invited his co-presenters on stage, asked them to close their eyes and then count one at a time. Every time people said a number at the same time, they had to start the count over so only one person was saying each number. Later, I played this game with my own students. They loved it and had no idea they were learning how to be quiet, listen to each other and collaborate. 

3. Play connects.

We know that through conversations children learn crucial child development skills. We also know asking any child how his or her day was usually doesn’t lead to conversation. Lead coach and teaching associate in special education Ariana Gauvreau shared her research on how parents can use photos taken by teachers throughout the school day as visual aids to guide nightly conversations with their 4- and 5-year old children on the autism spectrum. Kids talked more in these conversations; they used more words. Parents talked more too, and with a more varied vocabulary. The positive results lasted, too. “After working with these visual supports for a couple of months, the kids were able to add in detail and have higher quality conversations with their parents, even without the support of the photos,” says Gauvreau.

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4. Play prepares.

In preschool, a portion of the room is typically set up for role playing. There, kids learn skills they will need later in life and they slip into a new character every day. During her presentation, teaching associate Kimberly Mitchell shared how, when she was young, she dressed up as the Queen of England and ran to work at the pretend cash register. At an age when she had no power at all, she was telling a story to herself. Humans think in narrative, and that professionals also use role playing. So if role playing is such a powerful learning tool, Mitchell asked, why does most of this type of learning disappear after preschool? 

5. Play inspires.

We know that resilience is a fleeting experience; it comes and goes. If you don’t use the strategies of resilience, you won’t be resilient. Play allows us to practice and rehearse the skills and strategies that help us with life’s demands. Ph.D. student in school psychology Polo DeCano shared a story about a friend’s son who fell while scootering down a hill. His dad had him scooter down the hilll one more time after the fall. This child was willing to scooter and practice resilience because it was tied to his desire to play. Why that matters: We think resilience is about overcoming hardship, but you don’t have to suffer your way to resilience. You can play your way to resilience.

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