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Play is Fun—But It’s So Much More Than That

Summer is here, and with it comes the wonderful impulse to get outside and play. This year especially, it feels thrilling to think about our kids spending time with groups of friends.

Play is a refuge, a place for children to laugh, take risks, and experience emotions. After a year of fear and uncertainty, they need the spirit of freedom and experimentation that play provides. However, they may be confused or anxious as to how to get back to playing like they used to. If the ideas of play and freedom seem uncomfortable or foreign right now, here are some ways to help you get your kids back out there.

Why Play is Important

Play is not just a nice feature of childhood; it is absolutely essential for a healthy upbringing. Self-directed, independent play is a powerful way to foster confidence, build resilience, encourage imagination, and teach children to cooperate and negotiate with each other. The chance to grow in this manner has been severely curtailed this past year. Play deprivation, particularly during the first ten years of life, has been connected to depression, diminished impulse control, and weakened interpersonal relationships. Play will also reduce stress. The only time children have control over their world is when they are playing. During free play, they create the rules, the world, and the trajectory of their games. Play will actually help them assimilate and heal from the difficulties they have faced.

Understanding It Might Feel Weird

Once you commit to the glory of play, you can feel confident tackling any wariness you or your kids may experience. Of course, it feels strange to socialize freely: playgrounds have been closed or off-limits, friends have been kept apart with social distancing, and schools have been operating remotely. We are simply not used to being together. Even children that attend school in person have been saying, “I never see my friends.

It may be that your kids are thrilled to be social and playing again. They may need no period of readjustment at all. But if your kids do seem reticent, you might need to take it slowly. Do this by choosing just one or two friends to play with. They may want to keep their mask on. They may be uncomfortable getting too physically close to their friends. These fears will most likely abate as the kids become comfortable with the “old” way of doing things.

Encourage and Support Their Play

Apart from being nervous about COVID, they may worry that their friends won’t remember them or that those friends won’t like them anymore. Maybe they “forgot” how to play and feel general anxiety about how to conduct themselves. Depending on their age, they might not be able to articulate their worries.

Be calm and positive; focus on the fun that awaits them and remind them what their favorite games or activities used to be. You can go so far as to make a list of things they played or might play, such as running bases, building forts, capture the flag, house, duck-duck-goose, kickball, red light–green light, etc. In the absence of structure or screens, they may complain of boredom. Allow them to be “bored” enough to invent a new game or remember old games. We have been in the habit of staying isolated for so long. It may take some effort to relearn something that used to come so naturally. Praise their games and sense of fun; comment on their creativity and independence so they can feel a sense of success.

Make Play a Habit

Make free play a new habit by scheduling daily pockets of time when the child can meet up with classmates, go to a playground, or simply goof around in the backyard with friends. Pre-pandemic, the amount of time kids had to play was already in danger due to crammed schedules. Now is the perfect time to hit the reset button and build empty spaces for free play into your children’s schedule. Perhaps you found that during the pandemic you enjoyed the less hectic schedule; now you can choose intentionally how you will create your own new normal.

I discovered the importance of building free play into the schedule years ago when I gave my own kids a summer “off” from scheduled activities. They were much happier when their schedules were open enough to permit them to choose what they wanted to do—like have a friend over in the backyard or eat lunch in the pillow fort they made. Empowering them to choose how to use their free time made them happier and more confident in their own talents.

In a year of seismic challenges, play has most likely been neglected as a priority. Yet there is no happy—or successful—childhood without it. As we reflect on the lessons of the pandemic, a main point comes into focus: we can never take anything for granted.

Childhood is a finite time. Our children count on us to give them the childhood they need to become strong, happy, and healthy adults. Let’s make these years beautiful, fruitful, and delightful with play.

Pam Lobley is an author and humor columnist. She has written about parenting and family life for The Bergen Record and New Jersey Newsroom and for many national news outlets including The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Carolina Parent, Today.com, and Huffington Post. Her memoir, Why Can’t We Just Play? What I Did When I Realized My Kids Were Way Too Busy, is the tender and hilarious story of a summer she spent slowing down and “doing nothing” with her kids. A strong advocate for slowing down family life and getting more play into children’s lives, she has been a guest on many podcasts including Dr. Mike’s Pediacast and The Dad Experience.

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