Play is the Work of Childhood: Four Reasons Why Parents Need It Too

Play isn’t just for little ones; parents need it too. Here are some reasons why you, a full-fledged adult, should play and some tips on how to co-play with your children.

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Let’s play a game.

Close your eyes. (Just kidding, then you couldn’t read this article!)

Keep your eyes open. Let your mind go blank.

What are the first few words that come to mind when I say the word PLAY?

P-L-A-Y.

Many people associate “play” with “children.” And for good reason! Children are hardwired to learn through play. They use games and pretend (also called dramatic play) to make sense of the world and to build vital skills. High-quality early childhood education is play-based, and healthy children spend most of their time playing in various ways — rough-and-tumble play, dramatic play, constructive play, expressive play, and play with rules. It’s been said that play is the work of childhood.

But play isn’t just for children. It’s important for all mammals — dogs, dolphins, lions, tigers, bears, and human adults too. We all need to play.

This comes right up against another popular perception of play. Many people associate “play” with “luxury” — like it’s a “nice to have,” not a “need to have.” They tend to think that only people with light workloads and/or disposable income can afford to play; play isn’t for people who work long hours just to make ends meet.

Why Do Adults Need Play?

But play isn’t a luxury. Play is a necessity. Even now. Especially now. Here are four reasons why you, a full-fledged adult, should play:

Joyful young man lying on living room floor, lifting excited happy child in the air, surrounded by dinosaurs. | iStock

Joy

Play, by definition, creates joy. Drudgery and stressors are easy to find and often impossible to avoid. To balance out that equation, or even come out ahead, we need liberal helpings of joy.

Joy is powerful. It alleviates stress and mitigates depression. It contributes to our physical sense of well-being and boosts our ability to fight infection. It grounds us in the glorious present and reconnects us to ourselves. It improves our energy and our outlook, helping us initiate, maintain, and enrich relationships.

Relationships

Play supports relationships. Even when play occurs solitarily, as in model-building and Candy Crushing, players commonly participate in communities of practice. A community of practice is a group of people who share a common interest and come together, whether physically or virtually, to talk about it. They seek and offer tips, share “war stories,” celebrate wins, crack inside jokes and sometimes even meet up to play simultaneously.

But play is usually enjoyed with at least one other person, which provides an opportunity for co-players to bond. Because play unlocks our true selves, bonds forged in play tend to be strong.

Relationships are powerful. According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest studies of adult life ever done, relationships keep us happier and healthier. Good relationships are the cornerstone of a life well lived.

Perspective

Play provides different vantage points from which to see the world. When play has you embody another character, as in dramatic play or first-person video games, that shift in perspective is literal and can enrich our humanity. But that’s not the only way that play provides perspective.

Play offers lenses and metaphors. For example, football players may consciously or subconsciously draw on their training to make sense of the world — they may read body language during a meeting and know that a “blitz” is coming. They may grind every day at work because they believe in “leaving it all on the field.”

Play also disrupts the status quo. Because play tends to be absorbing, players have to drop whatever they’d been doing prior to play. When play concludes, players can choose whether and how to resume their activities. Their fresh eyes may perceive a better way to tackle a tedious task. Their endorphin-elevating, socially supportive play period may help them to realize that worrying in circles wasn’t accomplishing anything except making them miserable.

Perspective is powerful. To quote celebrated self-help author Wayne Dyer, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Growth

Play stretches our minds and bodies. It motivates strategic thinking, as in chess and poker. It taps creativity, as in charades and crafting. For the athletic among us, it builds muscle and enhances physical functioning.

Growth is powerful. It’s what keeps us vital and able to adapt.

Five ideas on how to use silliness for fun, enriching co-play between parent and child. Download full tip sheet. | Courtesy of Laurel Felt / Our Powerful Play

What is Co-Play?

And if those reasons are not compelling enough to encourage you to integrate play in your everyday life, what if I could offer you a solution that would deliver all of these benefits along with enriching your child’s healthy development?

It’s called co-play. That’s right. Play along with your child. Here are three tips to help you kick off your co-play:

Quality counts

Co-play doesn’t require umpteen hours or dedicated caregiver status. Just 15 minutes of rich connection can be enough to deliver the play benefits I just cited — namely, joy, relationships, perspective, and growth — for both you and your kiddo.

Rich connection requires focusing solely on your child and the play, without trying to multitask with chores or remain responsive to your phone. Rich connection feels like matching affect or being on the same page emotionally. This presence and alignment lets you two delight in the beauty of each other and the fun you co-create.

Release control

In your everyday lives, you’re probably calling most of the shots. So give your kiddo the chance to lead the way — and even to “boss you around” — within this play context. It gives your child the chance to enjoy power (what a delicious feeling!) at no cost to your family rules or daily schedule. This can help your child build leadership skills, self-confidence, and communication competence, and may reduce pushback when you assert authority outside of play. It also provides a fascinating peek into the way your child’s mind works, which can help you parent even more effectively.

Praise process

During and/or after play, reflect on your experience with your kiddo. Explain why you appreciate certain choices they made. Talk about the skills you saw your child demonstrate. Ask about their ideas and laughingly recall funny moments. If there was a conflict, you can explain why you found something problematic and re-affirm strategies to make safer choices moving forward. This warm review helps your child understand how much you enjoyed spending time together, and illuminates for them which kinds of behaviors and qualities you value in your family.

We are living through extraordinarily tough times. I believe, when crisis strikes, the only way to get through is together, and the best way to enjoy togetherness is through play.

So let’s keep calm and play on!


Laurel Felt is a learning designer, play and children’s media scholar, and founder of Our Powerful Play, a community that helps families with kids aged 2-6 enjoy fun, enriching co-play so everyone can connect, de-stress, and exercise their minds and bodies. To this work, she applies her background as an early childhood educator, training as an improviser, more than 10 years of experience developing curriculum for organizations like Mattel and the University of Southern California Annenberg Innovation Lab, and extensive education, which includes a master’s degree in child development from Tufts University and a doctorate in 21st century learning from the University of Southern California. Felt lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three-year-old partner in playtime, Sasha.