Play makes kids happier, more focused, and possibly smarter, research suggests

Once upon a time, splashing in puddles, catching frogs, building forts, and playing house were common childhood currency, time spent and traded in exchange for important skills. Then a new age dawned across the land, one that shouted, “The world is intensely competitive.” “Kids need an edge, starting in preschool.” “Recess is expendable!”

And play for the sake of play began to go away.

A number of experts want to bring it back. They say we need to bring it back because a growing body of evidence suggests that pure play is powerfully important to child development. In a PBS report, “Why We Should Take Play Seriously,” Lenore Skenazy says, “Play is nature’s way of getting kids to do the work of growing up.”

Skenazy further notes that “More and more, child development experts are turning their attention to free play—the kind that does not involve parents or coaches or anything with batteries. The new idea is that replacing free play time with extra academics or organized activities is not doing kids any favors.”

Hers is not a lone voice. Last month Lucy Ward, in an article in The Guardian titled “Children Should Learn Mainly through Play until Age of Eight, Says Lego,” interviewed Hanne Rasmussen, head of the Lego Foundation. She remarked that “the evidence for play-based learning has built enormously over the last decade, but parents don’t know about it.” Rasmussen further emphasized that while parents are well-intentioned, wanting only what’s best for kids, they do not fully understand what play can do.

It can do a lot.

“The Importance of Play,” a Parents Magazine article by Karen Bilich, confirms that kids’ daily play time, both at home and at school, has dropped considerably over the past couple decades. She also shares findings from an American Academic of Pediatrics report noting that "Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength." The article adds that play also “allows children to explore the world, practice adult roles, and gain confidence. And it improves children's social skills as well, by helping them to "learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills."

Or, as Skenazy suggests, “Play is dress rehearsal for adulthood, and, before that, for school.” She quotes Hara Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps, who says, “Play looks like a waste of time because it’s not ‘goal directed,’ and parents are,” adding that things like pretending and playing hide and seek aren’t helpful in college admission essays.

“Nonetheless,” she says, “play turns out to be a sort of kiddie supervitamin. It not only makes children happy, it also makes them more focused.” Bottom line? Marana says, “’Play builds brains.’”

While playtime free of parents can be important, one of the best ways to involve kids in activity play is to show them how to do it. After all, play also reduces stress and promotes physical fitness—true for both kids and adults. In a push to give kids an edge, letting them be kids may be doing them the biggest favor of all. Even better? Join them!