Why We Play

Rediscovering the Power of Playful Parenting



Amy ran the warm, soapy water through her hands and mentally went down the checklist of chores she had to finish before allowing herself to turn in for bed.


At the top of the list was, naturally, the day's worth of dishes now scattered after dinner across the counter in the kitchen. Breakfast bowls still tinged with souring milk mixed with a casserole dish, a seemingly endless stack of drinking glasses, flatware, plates, and more. Thankfully Mike was home from his day job and keeping their precious preschooler, Tony, entertained with some wild flight of fancy in the living room. She heard them laughing, smiled to herself, and picked up the first glass.


From the sound of it, the boys were playing with toys from the big box of Nerf guns they kept stored in Tony's room. Apparently the box had been dragged into the living room where Tony and Mike were about to tag-team an exciting adventure that might involve little plastic army men and maybe even a few aluminum cans.


Over the rising clamor in the other room, Amy heard Mike say, "Tony," he said, "why don't you go ask your mom if she wants to join us?"


Amy heard her little boy's feet pattering across the wood floor until they hit the linoleum in the kitchen. She turned to see her four-year-old look up earnestly toward her with his invitation.


"Mom," he said, muffing the words just a little bit, "do you want to enjoy us?"


And in that moment, Amy realized that dishes could wait, laundry could wait, even that pressing writing deadline could be put off just a bit longer.


She'd been invited to play by a child...and that's where one of the true joys of parenting was about to take place.


Moments later, Amy had used a bar of soap to draw a target on the big picture window of the living room and all three family members were laughing and playing until the time came for Tony's bath. (And Mike even ended up helping with the dishes before bed!)


The Importance of Play


Although she didn't realize it at the time, Amy had learned intuitively that some things in life are extremely important in a child's life. Safety. Shelter. Food and clothing. Affection. Love.


And play.


Research has shown that the ability to play is a critical part of maintaining a happy lifestyle, of sustaining social relationships, and fostering a creative and innovative personality. Play actually shapes the neuron paths in the brain and makes us smarter and more adaptable to life circumstances. Additionally, a healthy play-life as a child is a surprisingly accurate predictor of career success as an adult. (1)


In fact, some social and behavioral scientists believe that the play-life of a child—from preschool all the way into adolescence—is one of the most important factors in a child's physical and emotional development on the road to adulthood. "The idea that play is a basic, vital human disposition has long been recognized," says Dr. David Elkind, noted psychologist and child development expert from Tufts University. "Philosopher Friedrich Schiller regarded play as crucial to the human experience." (italics mine) (2)


According to Elkind (and Schiller), "Play allows humans to realize their highest aspirations and ideals." That's not all. Elkind also asserts that children actually create learning experiences through play. He says, "Learning is the product of play-generated experiences limited only by the child's level of intellectual development." (3) 


Dr. Elkind isn't alone in his views. In fact, numerous scientific studies have shown that play learning and maturation are irrevocably linked to play. One case in point is a now-classic experiment done many years ago. The focus of the experiment was to measure the effect of play on problem-solving in children.


A number of preschoolers, around the ages of four and five, were gathered for this study. The children were arranged in pairs, and then given a little free time before the activity began. Some of the pairs were allowed to play, apparently just to give them something to do, with a set of interlocking sticks while the researchers set up the rest of the experiment. These children were given no instructions as to what to do with the sticks. Other preschoolers were not given the sticks or time to play. 


After about 10 minutes, the sticks were left nearby as each of the pairs of children were allowed to choose what they thought was a "neat toy" for the experiment—either a piece of chalk or a colorful marble. That toy was then placed in a see-through, latched box. Two at a time, the children were seated in chairs within view of the box and given this instruction: Get the toy without leaving—or even leaning forward in—their seats!


It will come as no surprise to you that the children not allowed to play were not able to solve the problem and complete the task. In fact, most of them simply gave up, even though the solution was right within their reach...in the interlocking sticks.


But the children who had played with the sticks for only 10 minutes, refused to give up. In fact, they "worked very persistently and eagerly to solve the problem." They showed greater creativity and imagination, and using their prior knowledge gained through play, struck upon the solution: connect two long sticks together, then use those sticks to unhook the latch and pull the toy to them. Not bad for preschoolers! (4)


Multiple studies such as these have resulted in a new perspective on the importance of play—even revealing that regular play in the lives of children shows a related increase in reading levels and IQ scores! According to psychologists and educators, Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Dr. Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, "Based on the research evidence, a new equation is in order: PLAY = LEARNING." (all caps theirs) (5)


Play actually helps the brain develop physically and intellectually. Studies of the brain have revealed that a person at play literally expands his or her neural pathways throughout the various centers of the brain. Play forges new connections between the areas of the brain that didn't exist before, and which are often later used in the overall organization of the brain--and in the play-er's understanding and interaction with the world. This happens throughout life, but is most pronounced during childhood and adolescence. (6)  


Dr. Stuart Brown is a medical doctor, a clinical researcher, and founder of The National Institute for Play. Listen to what he has to say on this topic:


I have spent a career studying play, communicating the science of play to the public...I have gathered and analyzed thousands of case studies that I call play histories. I have found that remembering what play is all about and making it part of our daily lives are probably the most important factors in being a fulfilled human being. The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person...


Play is the stick that stirs the drink. It is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun, and wonder—in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization...


Play sets the stage for cooperative socialization. It nourishes the roots of trust, empathy, caring, and sharing...set[s] the stage for our understanding of fairness and justice...Play lowers of the level of violence in a society and increases communication...


I don't think it is too much to say that play can save your life. (7)


The Importance of Playful Parenting


Residents of Okinawa, Japan are known for both their longevity and for having good health well into old age—into their eighties, nineties, and even past 100 years of age. That kind of anomaly in such a localized place made Okinawa a prime target for medical researchers. The National Geographic Society conducted a study to discover what lifestyle factors most influenced the long life and health of the Okinawa elderly. They identified three primary activities as critical to this phenomenon:


1) Diet...


2) Exercise...and


3)...Playing with young children. (8)


"When we stop playing," says Dr. Brown in commentary on the National Geographic Society's study, "we stop developing, and when that happens, the laws of entropy take over—things fall apart." He concludes, "When we stop playing, we start dying." (9) 


Medical science backs up Brown's opinion. A number of studies have been done on the relationship of play to the physiology of aging. The results echo in astonishing ways: People who continue to play games well into adulthood are "much less prone" to develop dementia and other neurological problems. They are less likely to get heart disease. And they are nearly 2/3 (63%) less likely to get Alzheimer's disease! (10)


But we parents aren't the only ones who benefit from a healthy play-life with our children. When we play with our kids we help them engage more actively, in greater variety, and enhance the benefits of play. We expand the scope of cognitive development in our child. And we help our child learn to do things like manipulate symbols and think more abstractly—intellectual skills that transfer over to, and contribute toward success in, school, work, and social environments! (11) 


The Joy of Playing with Your Kids


Still, despite all the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of play that science has uncovered, there is one monumental reason why it pays to be a playful parent with your kids.


It's fun.


Yep, when parents and kids play, both have a good time. It's a natural, God-given expression of a healthy emotional relationship between family members and it provides something that no science experiment can ever replace: Happy memories.


Now, pay attention because I'm about to say the most important thing in this article. I encourage you to commit these next words to memory, to remember them next time your precious child walks in the room:


Happy memories make a happy childhood.


And when we play with our children regularly—regardless of what form or activity that play consists of—we plant happy memories in the lives of our kids that they can carry with them into adolescence, through young adulthood, and even into families of their own. Then one day they too will enjoy the thrill of getting down on the floor to play with a child...of throwing a ball in the backyard...of roughhousing around the living room...of playing Nerf Fun with soap-drawn targets on the living room window...of turning a plastic bottle into a beach toy that produces hours of fun...of playing with their own kids as a lifestyle already learned...of making happy memories that build a happy childhood.


Remember our friend Amy at the beginning of this article? One day she and her preschooler, Tony, were sitting around discussing their favorite things. Amy mentioned chocolate and movies and, of course, hanging out with her son. Then she asked Tony what he liked best about a variety of topics. Finally she asked, "What do you like best about your dad?"


Tony thought for a moment, then spoke these words with the precious earnestness of a child:


"The thing I like best about my dad? He plays with me."


And that might have been the best compliment a father has ever received. So what are you waiting for? Isn't it time for you to get out and play with your kids?








1. Stuart Brown, M.D. with Christopher Vaughan. Play. (New York: Avery, 2009.) 4-13.


2. David Elkind. The Power of Play. (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2007). 4


3. Elkind. 4, 103.


4. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, and Diane Eyers. Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Inc., 2003). 206-208.


5. Hirsh-Pasek. 208.


6. Brown. 41


7. Brown. 5-6,11-12,197-198, 11.


8. Brown. 72.


9. Brown. 73.


10. Brown. 71.


11. Hirsh-Pasek. 208-209.


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