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The Importance of Play: 8 Ways to Nurture Your Child’s Mental Health

February 26, 2019 | by Adina Soclof, MS. CCC-SLP

We need to bring play back into our children’s lives.

Play is the most cherished part of childhood. Sadly, free play for children has steadily declined in the past few decades. The reasons are many: tightly structured family and school schedules, more parents working outside the home, fewer safe places to play and rise of screen time. The average preschooler uses technology 4.5 hours a day.

Mental health issues are on the rise in children. Many experts believe that this directly correlates to the loss of play. Why? Because play is where children learn life adaptability skills. They learn to cope and deal with their stress when they run free, swing from monkey bars, climb trees. In essence they are testing their abilities in “dangerous” situations. Children themselves are allowed to manage just the right dose of danger. This knowledge helps them feel in control of themselves and the amount of stress they can handle, helping them feel in control of their lives.

Play also allows children to develop their imagination and creativity. They learn social skills, how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, make their own decisions and self-advocacy skills. Children who are left to play at their own pace learn to know themselves well. They can discover their own areas of interest and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue. Play also helps children maintain healthy physical activity level.

It is no wonder that experts have found that play can help prevent children from a slew of health issues, stress, anxiety, depression and obesity as well.

We need to bring play back into our children’s lives. Here are 8 tips to help increase your child’s free playtime.

1. Turn off electronics: This is not so easy to do in today’s world but it is essential. Have a no technology zone for the hours when your children come home from school. I always appreciate Shabbos because it is a natural break from the world of technology.

2. Have toys but not too many toys: Too much stuff just creates a whole lot of clutter and actually inhibits a child’s imagination. You can try rotating toys, every few months putting some toys away in a bin and replacing them with toys put away months before. This keeps your play area clean and also allows children to experience their old toys as new again.

3. Have space for kids to play: Children need room inside and outside to play. You want to designate an area in the house where they can play freely. We had an old couch in the basement that we called the jumping couch, our kids were allowed to do whatever they wanted with that couch, jump on it, build forts etc. If you have a yard, make sure it has an area for play, swings, a sandbox etc.

4. Have an art box or an art area: When engaged in art, children’s brains grow. It does not need to be anything elaborate: paper, scissors, crayons, markers, stickers and some glue can keep children engaged for hours.

5. Playing solo: Kids need some alone time to play. When they play with their toys by themselves it helps process new experiences, deal with their fears, conflicts, and everyday events in their lives. You often will hear your child engaging in fantasy play using different voices and reenacting what is happening in their world, which can be therapeutic. It is also great for developing their fantasy and imagination.

6. Get outside: Try to get outside everyday, even in the winter. Let them explore and play in nature—the woods, the park, the beach, wherever. If you live in a safe area, try to just sit on the side and let them let them have as much freedom as possible. They don't need an adult-led activity; they really need to be left alone, in control of their own play.

7. Mix children of different ages: It is helpful to encourage your child to play with children of different ages. Older children help facilitate a younger child’s learning, helping them get to a new level naturally. Older kids can practice their leadership skills more readily. Children will also learn to participate as well as challenge the game. This also helps them learn self-control and negotiation skills.

You also want to avoid intervening. Don't try to protect your child from others. Try not to judge other kids to harshly. Remember learning how to deal with difficult kids can give children the practice they need to deal with all types of people as they grow. These are the times where they are learning the biggest lessons in self-control and resilience.

8. Get support: You are not alone. Try talking to other parents, whether it’s in your neighborhood or just on your block. Put your heads together and see how you can encourage your kids to get outside like how it was naturally done back in the olden days.

Reference: Alexander, Jessica Joelle. The Danish Way of Parenting (pp. 27-28). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


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