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The Power of Play

The Power of Play

April 1 2016

Why play is Important - and endangered.

When you think about playing as a child, what are your fondest memories? It’s likely that these will be more about things you did and games you played rather than about a toy you owned. But ask a child these days what their favourite play activity is and more often than not this will involve a toy, big or small. Why is this and why is it a problem?

When children play using their imaginations - which means entering a world of make-believe and using props rather than particular toys as play things - they get to use their brain in a way that doesn’t seem to happen playing with toys that are already named and have scripts attached to them (think of the limitations of always being Elsa from Frozen or Lightening McQueen from Cars).

Imaginary play is thought to boost something called ‘executive functioning’ - a sophisticated set of skills which include impulse control (like delaying gratification and regulating emotions), planning, and abstract thought. Research shows that executive functioning is super important for academic achievement and making and keeping friends, amongst other things.

Sadly, children these days have fewer opportunities to engage in imaginary play, in part due to the rise in, and promotion of, branded toys (think Elsa and McQueen) which offer them limited opportunities to engage their imaginations in the same way - and also because adults can sometimes structure their world a little too much, yes even at preschool age, with art activities, music opportunities, learning to swim and so on.

Whilst these activities can be useful and provide other developmental opportunities, they shouldn’t be at the expense of time spent engaging in some good old fashioned imaginary play. Remember, by practicing executive functioning skills throughout childhood, your children will be more likely to be able to focus and learn at school and get on with others.         

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Want to know if your child is engaging in executive-functioning boosting imaginary play? Keep an eye out for them playing in a sustained and elaborate way, making (ongoing) plans for how the play will progress, and staying in their pretend role and world for an extended period of time. This might be by themselves or with others, and     even with adults – as long as they let the child lead the play.

Keen for ideas and information on supporting imaginative play? Take a look at this from the NZ Education:

Want to get other ideas for enhancing executive functioning throughout childhood? Check out this comprehensive resource from The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University:

Come along to our new 2½ hour workshop, The Power of Play. These workshops are now being delivered all over New Zealand (and are soon to be online)! You can find out where and when these are on by getting in touch with us – or 0508 FOR LIFE (367 5433)