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Child's play

Unstructured activities provide important social-emotional benefits

Child's play
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Tips for supporting pre-school play

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, January / February 2015

Pre-school age children are wired to play.

Most people can fondly remember a favourite activity they did as a child and can identify with the significance that activity had on them growing up. Whether it was building forts, hosting tea parties or role-playing characters, these imaginative, unstructured and openended activities helped pass the time, develop skills, and provide important life lessons.

Play is recognized as a critical aspect of a child's social, emotional, cognitive and physical development. Decades of research on the value of play, particularly in the first six years of a child's life, demonstrates that play is foundational to healthy growth and sets the stage for subsequent development in a number of important ways.

Today, however, research also shows that children spend far less time in free play due to the focus on structured activities, greater access to technological toys and devices, and fewer outdoor play spaces suitable for young children. While all these activities have a place, it is important to consider whether children may be missing out on opportunities for imaginative play that not only enhances brain development and school readiness, but sets the stage for healthy social and emotional growth down the road.

The physical benefits of free play in pre-schoolers may be obvious to most of us, such as physical fitness, enhanced motor skills and co-ordination. What may not be as obvious is a whole range of social and emotional benefits that are gained from imaginative and creative play. Open-ended play, rather than structured games and activities, is essentially an opportunity for children to engage in exploration. By exploring their imagination through pretend characters, scenarios and environments, a child can "test out" situations and learn how to problemsolve and work co-operatively with other children.

Opportunities for social play in the four- to five-year-old help them to develop their communication skills including the ability to understand another's emotions, referred to as empathy. Working out roles and actions during playtime helps children to learn how to be fair, and how to get along with others.

Free play with other children is naturally co-operative rather than competitive, as children attempt to balance their wants with those of their playmates. They practise their negotiation skills of give and take, not always succeeding, of course, but this practice helps to develop these skills. Other key skills that are enhanced during play with others include reading non-verbal communication. Children also get to know their community and culture through play, leading to a greater sense of belonging, a critical aspect of positive mental health and well-being.

Unstructured play provides an important emotional outlet for children and has been shown to reduce fear, stress, anxiety and irritability in addition to increasing a sense of calmness, resilience and adaptability. The ability to manage and regulate emotions leads to increased self-control, which is a necessary skill as children take on increasing responsibilities and independence as they grow older. Local research shows that many children in Manitoba are lacking in a number of socialemotional skills when they enter the school system. Without these skills, children have a difficult time managing their emotions and functioning well in the classroom.

Many young children today are not able to entertain themselves. They are accustomed to being entertained by others or technology and are most often guided in their daily activities. This reliance on others means that these children are challenged to tap into their imagination to create positive experiences for themselves. Children who are able to create their own fun are usually more content and simply easier to be around.

With all this focus on how play enhances skills, we don't want to lose sight of the fact that play is fun! And when play is fun, it produces feelings of joy and happiness, which in itself is good for children's wellbeing.

Even if you don't have young children, perhaps what we know about the important role of child's play can serve as a lesson and reminder for all of us as adults. Clearly, play serves a number of purposes in a child's life. All of us can benefit from enjoying time to play, whatever that means for us. From expressing ourselves through art or music to enjoying a hobby or sport, having time to "play" helps us all achieve more balance in our lives

Laurie McPherson is acting manager of Mental Health Promotion with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: January / February 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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