How Play Helps Kids Succeed and Cope

Emphasize play for kids to achieve
five kids running through grass toward camera
© Can Stock Photo / monkeybusiness

We all want our children to do well – that goes without saying. We want to provide them with all the learning opportunities that we can muster: leadership and computer camps this summer, advanced piano lessons starting in the fall, science club at lunch, play hockey Mondays and Wednesdays, ballet on Tuesday and Thursday, and on Sundays, organized playgroup for precocious learners. Of course, this is in addition to school and homework. All of this should surely set them in good stead for future success – right? The truth, in fact, might surprise you! 

What’s missing from the litany of “enriching” activities above may well be the single most important element required to provide your child with the edge you’re seeking: play. Yes, you read it right. When is your child going to play? Without hovering parents or teachers showing the way. Just…play!

Bestselling author, parenting expert, and co-founder of Challenge Success, a program launched via the Stanford School of Education, Dr. Madeline Levine, PhD, insists that play is serious business. In her new book Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success (Harper Collins, $33.99) Levine explores the fact that what we too frequently perceive as wasted time is actually the most critical work of childhood. Playtime is exactly when our kids develop their most essential arsenal of life-skills and resources.

“Read up on the evidence about play,” suggests Levine. “You’ll find it’s far more valuable than force-feeding children ‘education’ at a young age. Research shows that children who attend play-based preschools, as opposed to academic preschools, do significantly better in school down the line. Baby Einstein actually retards, rather than advances, language acquisition. Once you realize that your assumptions [about play] are wrong, you’ll be motivated to change your parenting practices.” She goes on to point out that, “Most experts agree that kids should have twice as much unstructured free time as structured playtime.” This is a target many of us well-intentioned parents fall woefully short of providing.

Levine references renowned American child-development expert David Elkind who argues that “play is essential to positive human development.” She continues: “He recognizes that there are different types of play: play that teaches children concepts and skills, play that initiates children into the world of peer relations, and play that helps kids develop strategies for dealing with stress.” What is critical to all of these modes is that they are self-directed and self-initiated, putting the child in charge.

“But my child loves ballet!” you say, “It’s not like I force her.” No, maybe not. But pleasurable guided learning and free play are not the same thing, and do not benefit the child in the same ways. Levine explains, “If a child goes into his room and strums on his guitar because he loves it, that’s play. When an instructor comes into the picture and starts ‘teaching guitar,’ the child may enjoy the experience but he’s no longer playing.” In the latter case, the child is no longer the one calling the shots, and this is a very important difference. Following from leading resiliency expert Ken Ginsburg MD, Levine states that, “What every child needs is free, unscheduled time to master his or her environment.”

So what exactly will free play allow your child to learn? Levine offers the following:

Play miniaturizes the world so that kids can deal with it

“Consider the complexities of a simple game of chase. The running and turning and ducking under and climbing over obstacles develop motor skills, but that’s just the beginning. Kids have to agree on the game and cooperate with each other, which are social skills. They also have to determine who’s going to be the leader, who’s going to be the follower, and when it’s time to renegotiate the roles. … Kids can learn more from a game of chase than from a week of leadership camp.”

Play teaches them how to handle stress and conflict

“Consider the spats, arguments, and out-and-out fights kids get into when they’re playing with their friends. If they can’t resolve or at least smooth over their disagreements, then the game will grind to a halt—and that’s not good for anyone. … Solitary play, too, provides plenty of problem-solving practice. Watch a young girl playing with her dollhouse and talking to the dolls: If her “child” steals a cookie from the cookie jar she may try out different ways of handling the situation.”

Play offers a feast for the senses – and the senses are the vehicles for childhood learning

“You might tell a child, ‘Twelve ounces is twelve ounces no matter what kind of shape it takes,’” explains Levine. “But when he’s playing with a glass of water and pours it into a short, fat bowl, and then pours the same water into a tall, skinny glass, he sees what you mean. Kids do not have the capacity for abstract thinking. They learn by doing. And that’s what playing is all about: doing.”

Play gives kids a sense of power in a world in which they are essentially powerless

“In order to push out into the world, to take risks and to craft ethical positions, kids need to feel that they have some impact on their environment. … This gets rehearsed in play, helping to get kids ready to stand up to the school bully or to resist peer pressure.”

Play bridges the gap between imagination and creativity

“A major study conducted by IBM found that the single most sought-after trait in CEOs is creativity. … If you want to develop that skill in your kids, let them play freely and often. … Do not impose form and structure. Shun pre-packaged experiences and pre-packaged toys when you can.”

Play teaches us about ourselves

“Our sense of self must be shaped internally, not externally. We need to learn what we’re good at and not good at—what we like and don’t like—on our own rather than being told by parents, coaches, and instructors. … Self-directed play is better for kids because ultimately they will have to turn back on their own resources and their sense of self. … If they don’t have that they will be always looking for external direction and validation. … Learning who you are takes place not in the act of doing but in the quiet spaces between things. The more of these quiet spaces you can provide your kids, the better.”

So, the next time you feel the urge to supervise your child’s free time by hovering and guiding them through every moment with words of caution and helicopter-parenting-style “teachable moments,” or a need to make discipline and competition a part of every experience so that they might adjust to the rigours of the “real-world,” a la Tiger Mom – back off! Remember this: play is defined by choice and, as Levine notes, it’s likely that “whatever he’s doing of his own free will is better than any ‘enriching’ activity you might impose on him.”