5 Things Kids Wish Grown-ups Knew About Play

“People tend to forget that play is serious.”
—David Hockney, artist

When I was a little girl, my favorite moments of play involved water, dirt, and my best friend Kim. A small, narrow creek ran through my backyard separating the grass from a little section of trees that grew behind the houses on my street. Kim lived two doors down and we spent hours outside in our yards and in the creek. In the summer we were barefoot more than we wore shoes. We would run through the dewy grass and dip our feet into the cool mud and the little bit of water that trickled along the creek bed was a welcome relief from the humid Ohio summers. We would turn over rocks and search for tadpoles and dig in the mud to find glass bottles or empty cans that had been washed downstream. Cooler weather didn’t keep us from continuing to explore — we loved when it got cold enough to freeze the water in the tiny creek. On the snowy days, we would wear our snowsuits and boots and gingerly step on to the ice to see how thick it was that day. The most fun we had was hearing the ice crack when we stepped on to the thinner parts. We learned by experience that where the water ran fast, the ice was thin and would make a sharp cracking noise when it gave way. Thick ice formed on slow-moving water and made a dull thud when it cracked and broke into large sections. I have no memory of how many times I fell through the ice of the creek, but I can remember as if it happened yesterday — the cold shock of the winter water rushing over the tops of my snow boots and soaking my socks.

Those memories of the deepest joy of my childhood play are the ones I’ve held onto even as the routine of adult responsibility has become my reality. The play of my childhood had value and helped form me into the person and mother I am today. I hear parents of young children sometimes say things like, “My child plays all the time. I want him to start learning.” Or, “My child plays enough. I want her to learn something.” When adults get impatient for a young child to learn from textbooks or a curriculum, they have either forgotten the complexity of what play really is or they have simply misunderstood what is happening inside the mind of a child when they are playing. I believe if we understood what play really does for a child, we would change the way we view childhood and allow more time for children to play.

Photograph by Krista BarréPlay happens because we are born as curious people with a tremendous need to wonder. Try, if you can, to remember yourself as a child and remember your favorite game. Who did you play with? Where did you play? What did you play? Now imagine the following scenarios and put yourself or a child you know in them: Two little girls giggle together and manipulate dolls and move them around a dollhouse. A boy stands alone at a low table and sorts toy trains into rows driving them along a track. A boy digs with a stick in a sandbox, patiently moving the sand around trying to dig a hole. Two children play on a swing set — one sitting in the swing and the other pushing his back to make him move as the child in the swing shouts, “Not too high!” A group of children ride tricycles and scooters around a driveway calling to each other to watch their tricks as they ride faster or hold the handlebar with one hand. Three 4-year-old boys run through a playground, shouting that they are “bad guys” as they run around tagging each other and whooping with laughter. A group of preschoolers stand around a table quietly painting their papers, not paying attention to the person next to them, only concentrating on the paint, their brushes, and the paper. 

A quick glance at the activity might lead the adult to think that their busyness is trivial interaction and just childish behavior, but if the children could put into words the magic that is happening in their minds and hearts this is what they would say:

1. Play makes me feel I belong.  

We are all born with a need for connection and community. We all have a need to be accepted on an intimate level with other people and some of us search our whole lives to find a place or a person who we know loves us for who we are. Play is a language we all share and is one of the rare ways we can connect with another human heart even if we have differences in physical or mental ability. There is more going on with the two little girls playing with dolls than that they both love a dollhouse. They have found each other and together as they play the same game, and they feel the other friend understands them and accepts them. The girls feel they matter to each other. Don’t we all want to matter to someone? Who do we belong to? Who holds us when we need to be held? I once knew two 4-year-old girls who were the best of friends. They spent every minute of the preschool day together, often holding hands. They loved each other. It was sweet to watch them play together, but what made their friendship powerful was the fact that one of the girls was Japanese and spoke little English. They communicated with each other through play. And they each felt the irresistible sense of acceptance when they were together. When a child feels he belongs, he experiences the very beginnings of the power of empathy and trust. Play gives a child a place to be known.

2. Play helps me understand my world. 

The boy sorting the trains is doing more than just pretending to drive them around. He is learning about shape and numbers, engineering and physics. He is learning that wheels move and roll, and that gravity pulls the train down the ramp of a track. He is learning the push and pull of trains connected to each other. He is building the understanding of how things move. When he is older and in school, he can recall the experience of playing with a toy train and then a math or science lesson will be relevant to him. Look closer at the child digging in the sand with a stick and you will see a child problem-solving. What is underneath the sand? Why does the sand keep falling back into the hole I’ve dug? Why is a grain of sand so small? What happens if I add water to the sand? How can I use more sticks and make a roof over the hole in the sand? What happens if I have stones and I build with them in the sand? This child is learning to problem solve; he is learning innovation. If we skip letting a child dig in the sand or play as much as he needs to with the trains, we are skipping the part of learning that helps kids understand their world. It is an injustice to children to not let them experience and experiment. Early childhood educator Bev Bos says, “Experience is not the best teacher, it is the only teacher.” 

Kids play at what they are trying to understand. Often children will play out what has recently happened in their lives or what they are trying to understand. Kids repeat games as they are trying to understand a situation or circumstance. When one of my sons was 4 years old, we went on a trip and used a map to figure out where we were going. The next few weeks my son spent time at his preschool drawing maps of the school building and playground and his kind teachers hung them up for the other children to see and use in their play. They understood that his use of maps in play was his attempt to try to make sense of something new that had been introduced into his life. We want our children to be thinkers. Play lets kids practice making sense of their world and allows them to become the thinkers they were born to be.

3. Play makes me feel safe to try something new. 

Play allows a child to try something new and maybe fail, thereby learning that risk-taking is part of the creative process. Play allows mistakes. Not only does play encourage having an opinion and offering it, but it also allows children to negotiate, argue, and compromise. Kids need to know that if they try something new and it doesn’t work, they can try it again. Risk-taking helps a child learn his limits. The children playing on the swings are feeling the risk of falling as they test their comfort zone with varying heights and speeds. By allowing the children to play, we are allowing children to learn that they are capable people and they will know they can push through fear to try new things. We shortchange children the experience of knowing they do not need to be debilitated by fear when we interrupt play and do something for a child that they can do for themselves. When we cut the shape out of paper for a child, we are taking away the opportunity for the child to learn to use scissors and develop their fine motor skills. Play lets children try new social skills, practice problem-solving, and gives them opportunities to understand language and how things fit together. Wooden toy blocks are some of my favorite pre-literacy toys. A child playing with blocks learns through repetition and making mistakes that pieces fit together a certain way to form new shapes, which lays the groundwork for eventually understanding that letters fit together to form words. If adults step in to show the child the correct way to build the blocks, the adult has robbed the child of not only the opportunity to learn to problem-solve in a creative way, but also the important lesson that it is okay to try something and fail.

4. Play makes me feel powerful. 

Years ago, a preschooler I knew would arrive at school a little insecure and unsure about spending the day with teachers and other children. He would come into the building and immediately go to the dress-up area where he would find one of many capes we provided and he would put on the cape. Only then, while wearing the cape, would he feel secure enough to be able to say goodbye to his mother. He would wear the cape the entire day removing it only when his mother returned to pick him up.

Play is a safe vehicle for pretending to be something you are not while the child is not secure in who he is or where he is. Wearing a cape for the day helped the little boy feel like he was a superhero and that he embodied the qualities of courage and strength that a superhero possesses. Playing at being a “bad guy” doesn’t make the boys running around the playground become bad; it helps them feel the power they crave.

The group of children riding their tricycles and scooters around the driveway are feeling the power of controlling their bodies, showing off for their friends, and feeling a rush of control at having everyone watch them as they show them a trick they can do. Allowing children to feel power and control through play alleviates frustration for children who frequently feel powerless. 

5. Play builds my brain. 

Research shows that the human brain experiences tremendous growth through infancy and childhood and continues to develop until the person is in his mid-twenties. Sensory experiences continually build the synapse connections between neurons in the brain. Touching, hearing, speaking, seeing, and tasting all build synapse growth with each experience. The more the neuron connections are used, the better communication happens between neurons. The more we experience, the better our brain grows. 

The children standing together at a table concentrating on their painting are doing more than dipping a brush into a color and swiping it across a piece of paper. They are learning about color, shape, texture, and cause and effect. They are learning about too much and too little, they are learning that a painting can be a representation of an idea. They are using their fine and gross motor skills as they grasp the brush and move it across the paper. They are practicing moving an arm across the midline of their bodies into the space of the other arm which effects the development of their vision and prepares them to learn to read as they coordinate their eyes and arms to move from left to right and from right to left. Every minute with paint builds synapse connections or strengthens other connections. An astounding 700 synapse connections are formed during every second of a child’s life within his first 4 to 5 years. Children need play to build their brains.

Young children naturally explore who they are and what their world is by spending their time wondering and discovering the world through the joy of play. I learned about friendship, nature, and my small town Ohio world in my hours of play with my friend Kim, and those memories have inspired me to give my own children time and opportunity to imagine and wonder without my interference. The mystery and magic of the benefits of play must be experienced as a child, and if a little water and mud are mixed into the process, then it’s even better. 

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Krista Barré has worked in the Franklin, Tennessee area for 20 years bringing creative play and art experiences to the children in her care. She still likes to explore the creek near her house and thinks a mud or paint spattered child is the sign of a pretty good day.

Wild Thing