Let The Children Play: Research On The Importance Of Play, Digested

By Emma Young

As children head back to school, teachers and parents will of course be concerned about kids catching up on their education after the Covid-19 lockdowns. But, as many psychologists have pointed out, they need to catch up on play, too. So what does the research tell us about the need for and the importance of play?

First: why do kids need to play?

Well, of course, it’s fun — and as we all know, having fun is critical for kids’ psychological wellbeing. But there are also all kinds of documented developmental benefits. For example, play helps children learn how to interact successfully with others and to get better at regulating their emotions. Kids also learn through play: as we discussed in our recent podcast, it helps them to develop concepts and skills, including mathematical concepts and problem-solving, and to stretch each other. If they are running around and navigating obstacles (even if those obstacles are just other kids), it also trains their senses — especially proprioception and their vestibular senses. For all sorts of reasons, it’s vital. In fact, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states clearly that “every child has the right… to engage in play”. In one pre-Covid-19 survey, children in Wales were asked what they would change to make themselves healthier and happier — and more time and space to play and feel safe was a top response.

Don’t drop afternoon breaks

Many UK schools have now shortened or even dropped afternoon break-times, replacing them with extra teaching time instead. Given the reduced teaching during lockdowns, more schools may find it tempting to lose that break. But there’s evidence that this would harm children’s wellbeing. The HAPPEN (Health & Attainment of Pupils in a Primary Education Network) project on children aged 9 – 11 in Wales found that those who had afternoon breaks were physically fitter, for example, and, notably, they did no worse in Key Stage 2 tests than children who’d instead been taught during this time. Physical activity doesn’t have to be restricted to break time and PE lessons, however. A preliminary trial on 8- and 9-year-olds in 10 London schools found that those in active maths and English lessons — in which they ran on the spot, for example, while answering questions — were more focused in the class.

There are other benefits to playing outside

For one, as supported by a recent paper in Scientific Reports, the increase in myopia (short-sightedness) in many countries has been linked to reduced time spent outdoors in childhood. Regular playtimes in green spaces, such as parks, are also associated with milder symptoms for kids with ADHD. And there could ultimately be environmental  benefits from kids spending longer outside, too: work led by Catherine Broom at the University of British Columbia, Canada, has linked time spent outdoors in childhood to a love of nature and concern for the environment in young adulthood.

Make “enhanced” pretend play part of the curriculum?

Periods of time devoted to imaginative play are common in preschools and in classes of younger school children. Certainly, they give kids the opportunity to learn how to interact well with others. But Édouard Gentaz at the University of Geneva and colleagues wondered whether teacher-guided pretend play sessions that focused more explicitly on social and emotional development might have extra benefits. They recently ran a study involving classes of 5 – 6 year-olds in Valais, Switzerland. Some of these children got 11 hour-long weekly play sessions guided by a teacher who had been trained to encourage them to pretend to be bursting with joy, for example, or who challenged them to solve a dispute, while the others had non-guided pretend play sessions. The team found that the children who’d been guided were better at recognising emotions and had a bigger emotional vocabulary. Whether or not that translates into better interpersonal skills is not yet clear. A more extensive trial is now underway, again in the region of Valais.

Don’t panic about newly aggressive pretend play

After the pre-Easter lockdown, my 10-year-old came home with all kinds of stories of playground bust-ups. I’m sure the same thing happened in every school. After so long in isolation, it’s no wonder that some kids struggled with managing anger. For a minority, though, this is an ongoing problem. And a recent study led by Zhen Rao of the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning at the University of Cambridge found something really interesting about the impact on classmates.

The team observed children aged 7 to 10 in China while they played with toys in pairs. (The toys were “neutral”; there were no toy guns, for example.) The results showed that when a child was paired with one who was deemed by fellow classmates to be bad-tempered, that first child was 45% more likely to introduce aggressive themes into their joint play. The child’s own temperament didn’t seem to influence this — it was to do with who they were with.

A lot of research on aggression in play has focused on potential associations with the child’s own temperament. But the study suggests that kids use play as a safe context in which to explore how to best handle an aggressive person in real life. For some children, then, aggression-themed play may not be a sign that they struggle to “play nicely” with other kids, but rather a sign of social-emotional learning.

All of this work argues that as our children go back to school, teachers should keep sight of what of course they know to be true — that play time as well as study is vitally important — while parents can ensure that children get as much play, and especially outdoor play, as possible.

This feature also appears in the September issue of The Psychologist

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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