The Land of Make Believe: Even More Important Than We Imagined

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.                                                    -Plato

According to the National Institute for Play, play can be defined as, “a state of being that is intensely pleasurable. It energizes and enlivens us. It eases our burdens, renews a sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.” I would go even further to say that for children, play is their natural state of being. Put a child in the desert with no toys, video games or television around. As long as this child’s basic needs have been met, he/she will find a way to play.

As a play therapist, I have the opportunity to witness daily how vital play is to a child’s development. It allows them to learn about themselves and the physical world. It teaches them to communicate with peers and adults. They learn interactive skills like taking turns and following rules. They gain self-confidence by making up their own rules. It energizes children and relaxes them too. It is their way of developing empathy and expressing what’s going on inside of them. Play is so crucial to a child’s growth, that children who are not played with and not allowed to play can have severe and lasting problems in all aspects of development.

Remember Mr. Rogers and the Land of Make-Believe? Were you as enchanted by this as I was? Do you remember what it was like to make up games with your peers or parents, creating a world that was anything you wanted it to be? You’d work out the details, create the set, develop characters and embody entirely new ways of being. Make believe or pretend play is one of the most important aspects of a child’s play experience. It is a child’s opportunity to rehearse for real life. They develop empathy by “walking in another person’s (or other character’s) shoes. It’s through pretend play that children most readily express their internal experiences and emotional processes .  A child who dresses up as someone powerful may be working through feelings of powerlessness or insignificance. A child who puts band-aids all over her dolly may be hurting and in need of some nurturing. These are just a few examples and each child’s experience is unique to his/her own life, but you get the idea: Kids communicate through play.

Over the last sixty years, with greater concern for children’s safety and both parents working out of the house, families are increasingly organizing kids’ free time with structured, adult-moderated activities. These can be great, providing for children’s enrichment and socialization. But there is more and more research showing the importance of unstructured time to allow children to develop their imaginations and creativity. Psychologists actually believe that the decrease in kids’ pretend play time has literally shrunk their imaginative space, causing significant changes in their development.

In the 1940’s a study was done asking 3, 5 and 7 year olds to stand perfectly still for a certain amount of time. The 3-year olds couldn’t stand still. The 5-year olds could stand still for about 3 minutes. And the 7-year olds could stand still for about as long as the researchers asked. In 2001 psychologists at the Mid-Continent Research Center for Education and Learning tried to replicate the study. They found that sixty years later, the 5-year olds were no longer able to stand still and the 7-year olds could barely stand still for three minutes.

This study demonstrates a decrease in children’s ability to self-regulate (control their emotions and behavior), which is a crucial part of our cognitive function. When children’s ability to self-regulate is hindered, they are impulsive and have less self-control; traits that can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, aggressiveness and even depression. Laura Berk, a psychologist from Illinois State University believes that pretend play is of particular importance in helping children develop healthy self-regulation. Dr. Berk says that, “kids’ self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain.” What seems unstructured or even maybe silly, is helping kids become more capable in school, with peers and at home.

So, as you’re putting together your summer calendars and signing your kids up for camps and lessons to fill their time, be sure to schedule (in ink) some time each day for unstructured, creative play. Give your kids simple materials (egg cartons, cardboard boxes, scraps of cloth, paper towel tubes) and let their imaginations run wild. You will be supporting a crucial aspect of their development and helping them become more balanced, empathic people. And, for at least a few minutes each day, get down on the floor and play with your kids. Not only is it healing for them, but your own inner child will also appreciate the chance to shine.