"Why Play?"

By Grace Ratchford, co-owner of Balance Studios

Play is so important in everyone's life and especially in a child's. Even as an adult, it seems like play resets us. It's a way for us to mentally and physically release and recharge. It helps us learn the physical and social worlds of others around us.

Joe L. Frost, the Parker Centennial Professor Emeritus at University of Texas at Austin, has more than fifty years of experience in research and teaching. In his book Play and Playscapes, he writes,

“Play is the chief vehicle for the development of imagination and intelligence, language, social skills and perceptual-motor abilities in infants and young children."

Play doesn't have to be expensive or even require any toys. Infant play may look something like playing peek-a-boo with Mom and Dad or learning how to make animal noises. But even in those simple games, think about all that is happening! A child might wonder, If I can't see Mom and Dad, where are they? He might make eye contact while communicating, associate noise to a certain animal and its name, and much more. 

How many people remember learning what sounds a monkey makes or even the name of that specific animal? I sure don't; it's just something that seems like it was ingrained in me. Through play, I was taught some of the basics of life, and that teaching wasn't something I had to sit in a classroom to learn or that my parents had to spend money on. 

Infants are like sponges, and they absorb all that is happening around them. They pick up on happiness, and it's contagious to them. Once your child is a toddler, however, how is play important? At a recent training class at Highland Plaza Preschool, I learned that the average toddler is told “no” 200 times per day. 200 times per day! Perhaps if they are given a space that is totally theirs to mess up or have time for “free play," then they will be happier.

I teach the children at Balance in our Kids Day Out program, and they sure seem to do great with this approach. After 10–15 minutes of play, they will sit calmly and do art or yoga for 15–20 minutes straight. 

This is also the age where children start to develop their fine motor skills and start to learn about sharing. Fine motor skills don't necessarily come naturally to everyone, but through play, the skills can be strengthened, making manipulation fun. A great and cheap tool is a can of water with a paintbrush. I also like to add in a chalkboard, but the ground is more than fine. Children can simply play with the water, which helps the sensory system develop, or they can draw a picture with the water and paintbrush or practice writing, both of which help fine motor skills develop. 

Blocks are another great tool for development. Stacking and building with them can teach so much. Building a city is one of my favorite things to do with children, because it allows their imagination to run free while teaching them how to work together. Our favorite activity with blocks at Balance is simply building a city, and it's great because it gets children thinking about what makes up a city or town: how do we get from place to place; where do the people live; where do the people work; where do we go out to eat; where do we play in our city; and where do our animals go to get healed? Outside pavers and loose pieces are another fun way to encourage city building.

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At Balance Studios, we love to get back to basics and keep things simple. For instance, almost all children love to cut or tear paper. While this love isn’t always encouraged in all households because of how messy it can get, think about the skills that are developing when a child cuts a piece of paper. They are learning how to hold the scissors properly (fine motor skills) and what happens when they cut one piece into many (simple math). From there, they will work on problem solving, asking themselves how many pieces they now have or how to get the pieces back together. Using a bowl is a great way to cut without leaving a big mess.

By the time your child is of elementary school age, play couldn't be more important. When I was in elementary school, we had thirty minutes of recess in the morning and anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour of gym time in the afternoon. I remember always wanting more time at both.

Nowadays, children get way less than that, and it's such a shame. It's hard even for adults to sit completely still in the same seat for hours on end, yet we ask our children to do it. The average child can concentrate for 2–5 minutes per year of age: 

•    2 years old = 2–10 minutes
•    4 years old = 8–20 minutes
•    6 years old = 12–30 minutes
•    8 years old = 16–40 minutes
•    10 years old = 20–50 minutes

You can cut that attention span down even more if a child has ADD, ADHD, or special needs. (See Education Corner for more information.)

Since a lot of children are required to sit still and concentrate during the school day, play can be crucial after school, especially if there is homework to be done. There are many different ways to play after school and before homework time: playing outside, going on a scavenger hunt, building a fort . . . Indoor play could look something like playing pick-up sticks, Go Fish!, or building with blocks. Really, anything that gives a child’s brain a rest and time to restart is great. 

From infant to elder, everyone loves to play. I'm thirty years old now, and I must say that play is something I still enjoy and find crucial to my psyche. Today, my “play” is things like hiking, camping, fishing, journaling, yoga, art, lunch with friends, or grabbing an instrument. Laughing and playing seems to restart me and makes me feel rejuvenated. 

I'm pregnant with my first child, and I can't wait to get back to the basics of simple play. Play is good for the soul.