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The power of play

As children slog though grueling schedules of enrichment and academics, researchers have found a connection between brain development and the very thing kids are getting less of.

By Valle Dwight

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Not just child's play

Want to help kids do better in school? Don’t forget to shoo them outside to play. Whether it’s building a castle out of blocks, pretending to be a pirate, or riding bikes, play isn’t just good for the body — it actually helps the brain.

Valuable play isn’t limited to structured exercise (like organized sports), and it’s most definitely not playing video games. At its best, play engages the body and mind in imaginative activities that develop a child’s ability to think creatively, work as a team member, and create and follow rules. So if you're worried your child needs to spend more time doing fractions/practicing violin or karate/diagramming sentences to become a complete human being, remember that kids also need unstructured time to build, create, and fantasize.

As any kid with a pile of mud (birthday cake, anyone?) already knows, play performs an essential role in childhood development. But since we’re all adults here — and it’s easy to forget what children instinctively understand — we’ve culled through the research to find the most interesting studies on different kinds of play and how they help kids grow.

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.

Comments from readers

"can you link me up with best school for power of play esp outdoors, she is smart, with emementary children, she is 10 years old, somewhere in houston tx or country (she already has an IEP under OHI) (public for adhd, social and behavior dyslexia and can't write (fine and gross? Her birth mom drank alchol and she has Alchol related nerological disorder, ODD and social skill lack of She needs peer researched theraputic recreatioinal play and behavor with a neurological approach to teaching. Thaks, Cindu "
"I LOVE this article!!! I have ALWAYS believed play was important. As a child I did not have the opportunity to play much outside because we lived in a not-so-good Brooklyn neighborhood and my parents were always afraid of the influences the neighborhood kids would have on us. So needless to say, I made poor choices in friendships later on as a teenager when I 'escaped' to freedom and longed for that fun play time I wanted so much as a child. Now as a mother of 2. I play with my children as much as I can and take them to the park regularly and I ALWAYS have it in mind that play is important to them because it WILL help them in life. Thank you for this awesome article. I hope LOTS of parents read this and realize how important play is in their child's life. "
"Another great article, Ms Dwight. I particularly like the progression of play thru the ages/stages. As a therapist, one of the most useful venues of 'play' is the fertile ground it provides for expression and healing of emotional wounds, as well as physical illnesses. Without it, no child (or adult), can fully heal, particularly if the type of play is used to elicit bolts of joy and exhuberance. Ignite the heart, ignite the body. And an even more delightful effect of a happy, playful child, is that they're contagious. Before long, the entire classroom is giggling away, cleansing the air we breathe :)"