Playtime is a necessary and natural part of growing up. Yet, playtime is in short supply these days and children are stuck indoors more than ever, spending half the time their parents did playing outside. This is taking a major toll on their health, cognitive functions, lifestyle choices, and mood.
The same consequences are evident in adults who don’t get enough physical activity. From diabetes to cardiovascular disease, people all over the globe are experiencing the negative effects of lack of playtime. By making small changes and developing a play-friendly lifestyle, both parents and children can enjoy the many benefits of play.
Improves Cognitive and Motor Functions
Experts agree that play is critical for proper brain development. When children engage in play and exploration, they trigger the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor. BDNF is essential for the growth and preservation of brain cells. Additionally, it increases attention spans and results in higher productivity levels. One study found that fourth-graders were more attentive and calm on days when they had recess, with hyperactive children benefiting the most.
Additionally, play improves motor skills, which are an essential part of growth. The physical benefits increase the ability to utilize reflexes, improve flexibility and balance, and control fine and gross motor skills. Through play, kids learn how to crawl, walk, run, jump and skip. Certain kinds of play, like swinging, also teach body awareness by engaging the vestibular system located within the inner ear. This system helps you figure out where you are in space so you can adjust your movements accordingly.
Encourages an Active Lifestyle
Naturally, these skills allow children to lead more active lifestyles, thereby improving their physical health and fitness. And it seems, now more than ever, kids need play. In the past 40 years, the percentage of overweight youth has more than tripled. Roughly 80% of children between the ages of 11 and 17 don’t get enough physical exercise, a major contributing factor in obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Encouraging kids to engage in play at an early age helps them develop the skills they need to stay active throughout their lives. Participating in sports, heading outside to play or simply dancing around the house can improve health and promote more physical activity. Besides, who said the exercise had to be boring? Making it fun will create a sustainable routine that you’ll actually look forward to, making it less of a chore and more of an enjoyable part of life.
Playing also has the potential to improve mood and your sense of well-being. Since play is a secret form of exercise, it lowers stress and boosts serotonin levels, leaving you feeling happy and satisfied. Playing outdoors has even more benefits, including exposure to sunlight, which boosts Vitamin D, helping fight disease and ward off depression and anxiety. The outside play also removes the temptation of technology. American children spend an average of six hours a day using electronics, but going outside encourages them to be twice as active.
Exercise through outdoor play has also been shown to improve sleep by shifting the cycle of sleep hormones. Experiencing outdoor light and darkness resets your internal clock to be more in rhythm with nature. Thus, you go to sleep earlier and rise earlier and less groggy. This, subsequently, improves your mood and keeps you happy and healthy all day long.
Promotes Social Skills
The Play also builds a pro-social brain by teaching you how to interact positively with others. It’s how you make new friends, whether you’re a 10-year old sharing your model trains or a 40-year old playing church softball. Through play, you learn to negotiate social boundaries and break down barriers, like age or socioeconomic status, that would otherwise separate you in a formal setting.
Moreover, play teaches kids, in particular, how to handle their emotions and which kinds of reactions are socially acceptable. For instance, if their sibling won’t share their blocks, will the react in anger, or choose to stay calm? Real-life situations like allows kids to work through predicaments on their own and learn how to better express their thoughts and emotions.
Additionally, play promotes creativity in both children and adults. When kids use familiar materials in an unusual or new way or engage in role-play, such as playing house, they call on their imagination. Allowing children time to play also gives them a unique opportunity to express their individuality and unique perspective. Creative expression may take the form of painting, drawing, dancing, storytelling and more. With play, children have the freedom to try out new ideas in a safe environment as well as build on old ones.
For adults, play may look slightly different. A game of golf, pick-up basketball or wrestling with the kids might be their go-to form of play, yet these situations still allow you to problem-solve creatively and use your imagination. Memory and brain games may also be particularly useful in helping your brain and creativity grow, even well into adulthood.
Appreciating the Little Things
Most importantly, the play makes you happy by allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the joy of the present moment. Laughing until you cry, smiling until your face hurts and running around until you’re nearly breathless are, of course, the greatest and most precious health benefits of play. So, take your kids outside and spend some time simply playing and appreciating all the little things that make life wonderful.