When the pandemic hit, Katie Raspa felt stuck. So in July, the former early childhood educator and her husband loaded up their daughters into their AirStream trailer and set out on a cross-country road trip. The Maryland couple’s mission was to give eight-year-old Imogene and six-year-old Caroline an opportunity for play.
“People kind of forget that children are supposed to play,” Raspa says. “It helps them learn really critical skills like creativity, flexibility, and cooperation.”
Anyone who tries to tell you that play is frivolous is wrong. It’s an important behavior that humans and many other species of animals evolved to help them learn new skills and prepare for adulthood. Play helps strengthen kinship bonds and friendships, and helps kids become better communicators. Play can even boost brain health as well, particularly when it makes us laugh since laughing releases feel-good endorphins. It can also help kids become better communicators and kinder friends.
But it’s hard for kids to play when they need to stay six feet apart and might not even have the luxury of school recess anymore. Experts say, though, that play is crucial now as children deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Play helps kids figure the world out,” says Roberta Golinkoff, professor of education at the University of Delaware. “It gives kids a chance to act out scenarios and work through difficult emotions.”
And play is not only good for your children—it can make your life as a parent easier as well.
When animals play
To understand how important play can be for human children preparing for life, scientists often look to the animal world.
Experts used to think that play had a single purpose. Some speculated that play helped animals train for predation, as when cheetah cubs play fight. Others hypothesized that play could either help boost cognition, encourage flexibility, or promote motor function. (For instance, a capering baby giraffe is also practicing flight skills to evade predators.) According to Isabel Behncke Izquierdo, a primatologist and ethnologist who studies animal behavior, play has many functions, including the ones listed here and others.
“It’s useful if we think of play as a wild card,” Behncke Izquierdo says. “It will help an animal adapt, but it takes different forms.” How animals play—and what they use it for—all depends on the species, its environment, and many other variables. For instance, some birds have been recorded using roofs like slides, which might sharpen their reflexes. Adult bonobos run and laugh with younger ones, strengthening bonds and teaching social skills. And domesticated cats and dogs engage in predatory play that mimics how their ancestors hunted. (Read how dogs and horses share a common language of play.)
Play serves similar functions in humans—we just play differently. “You might dance with friends, and that will have a bonding function,” Behncke Izquierdo says. “You might draw, do wordplay, and make jokes, and that might be a creative function.” The fact that it’s fun, she says, compels humans and other animals to continue developing these skills.
Play might start in childhood as a developmental tool to prepare animals for adulthood, but it often continues long after. Adult dogs still chase and nip each other; horses play tag. In this way, play continues to build and maintain social bonds throughout many animals’ lifetimes, Behncke Izquierdo says.
Why kids need to play
With most playdates limited and school recesses cancelled because of the pandemic, it’s crucial for parents to find ways for their children to play, whether it’s on their own, with parents or siblings, or with trusted friends. That way, children can continue to develop fine motor skills by doing puzzles or crafts, boost brainpower and cognition with a challenging board game, or enhance critical-thinking skills with an activity like a scavenger hunt.
Creative play can also boost mental health, notably as children cope with anxiety and fears about the pandemic. Golinkoff says that the negotiation, communication, and language skills built from play activities are important for a child’s social-emotional development. “They often involve acting out scenarios from adult life or the world in a safe space that makes it easier to cope with them,” she says.
And play can also be a way to ease parental concerns about their children falling behind because of distance-learning challenges. For the Raspas, play opened up a whole new world of knowledge as they let their daughters’ curiosity guide their learning, which kept the girls more engaged while having fun.
“Typically, we spend an hour or so a day on reading or more complicated math,” Raspa says. “The rest of their day is play.” But the play is often a learning opportunity. For instance, at their last stop, the family camped near a freshwater pond, which taught the girls about a new habitat they could explore. “We can use these little discoveries to do more in-depth study and research,” she says.
Golinkoff also recommends this type of guided play, in which parents act as helpers instead of teachers. “Kids are curious about everything,” she says. “If you follow your children's lead, you’ll see what they want to learn about.” For instance, taking a safari in your backyard to draw or photograph bugs or plants encourages your child to ask questions, inspires them to research more, and can bring everyone closer together.