THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAY
If you were told you could lose weight simply by eating more carbs than you currently do, would you be on your way to the pizza shop right now? If you were told you could become better at your job by working less, would you take next week off? If you were told you could earn more money by giving more money away, would you become more generous? While some people have claimed the effectiveness of all kinds of diets that may or may not work and while there are studies showing employees to be more effective with adequate paid time off and while people like Mr. Beast have made millions of dollars by giving millions of dollars away, these counter-productive oxymorons do not make a fragment of practical sense. At the very least, these ideas would be outliers of what we know to be normal, yet there is a scenario much like these that has been proven time and time again through academic studies and simple observations by the average Joe. Here it is: play can make you smarter, better, faster, and stronger. Those words look and sound a lot like Daft Punk song lyrics from 2001.1 Nevertheless, they ring true louder than any synthesizer Daft Punk ever used. Playing helps us relieve stress, improve brain function, stimulate the mind, boost creativity, and feel younger and more energetic.2 And those are effects of a fully developed adult! Imagine what it can do for kids as they grow physically, cognitively, socially, and emotionally!3 It seems fairly obvious, then, that we should play more, right? Before we can do so, though, let’s define what “play” actually is.
According to dictionary.com, “play” is “To exercise or employ oneself in diversion, amusement, or recreation” and “To do something in sport that is not to be taken seriously,” among other definitions (sixty, to be exact).4 This gives the idea of “play” a colossal range of variety. Telling jokes, bouncing a ball, acting, hanging on a jungle gym, making a video, dressing up, and seeing how fast you can clap your hands together are all ways to play. It may seem like playing is an easy task (if we can even classify it as a task at all), but our society marginalizes the importance of play, especially in adults.
Yes, there are times to play and times to be serious, but regular play helps make those serious times more productive and effective. In fact, in 2021, a pilot program which had 33 companies mandate 4-day work weeks had an increase in revenue of over 8% in 6 months while employees were less burned out, less tired, and physically healthier.5 Less stress and more sleep certainly played a factor. The truth seems to be, though, that it allowed more time for play. Again, if fully developed adults can be affected this much and this positively by play and leisure, imagine what it can do for kids.
Play is not only important for kids; it is necessary. The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has recognized play as a right of every child.6 Unfortunately, our culture continuously creates less and less time for play. Our busy lives and schedules do us and our kids a disservice by taking opportunities for playing away. A regular day for kids can be waking up, going to school, coming home, doing homework, going to sports practice, eating dinner, and going to bed. Sure, practices can be play and kids get recess at school and kids can do their best to play in the car, but weekdays in our busy world seem to have pushed play time to the fringes of our priorities. That needs to change. The benefits of play are seemingly infinite. While it does allow kids to have fun and reduce their stress levels, it is also the primary way children learn. Play is crucial to kids’ cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development.7 As kids play, they improve their cognition by understanding the confines of the play in which they are participating and experiencing rules, guidelines, or real-world principals applied to their play. Play clearly helps with physical development of kids, as kids are often very active in playing. While playing can be done alone, play is often most beneficial with others, because it allows kids to work together or with each other and communicate with their playmates. Emotional development is also increased through play as kids work through disagreements, losses, and even the joys of simply playing. These essential developments in kids can be done through all kinds of play. One of the most important kinds of play, though, knows no structure or confines.
Playing does not necessarily mean participating in a game. We oftentimes confuse competing with playing. When a competition is at stake, our minds can become distracted by the desire to win, and the benefits of playing can be overshadowed by the drive to complete a task. The importance of differentiating playing and competing, then, becomes apparent. It brings the aspect of imagination into the conversation. Imagination accelerates the growth of kids in many different developmental aspects by causing them to use their brain to come up with all the aspects of play. If you do not have any rules, you can make them up. If you do not have any toys, you can invent them. If you do not have a setting in which to play, you can create it. Imagination is necessary for all these things. Imagination is used much more than many people may think, too. According to Tao de Haus of aboutmybrain.com, imagination “Influences everything we do, think about, and create. It leads to elaborate theories, dreams, and inventions in any profession from the realms of academia to engineering and the arts.”8 However, despite the relevance and benefits that are evident in imagination, it can often be downplayed as embarrassing or undignified or childish; but maybe that is the point.
Think back to the story of the Prodigal Son in the ninth chapter of the biblical book of Luke. A wealthy man had two sons. The younger son demanded his inheritance, essentially wishing his father was dead, and greatly dishonored him. After leaving his father and squandering his inheritance, the son decided to humble himself and return to his father – not as a son, but as a hired servant. When the father saw his son from afar, he ran to him, embraced him, kissed him, affirmed him as his son, encouraged him, accepted him, and celebrated his return. This man became completely undignified. In an honor/shame society such as the one in which this story takes place, it would have been disgraceful for the father to run after his son who had disrespected him with such vitriol. It would have been outrageous that he accepted him as his son. It would have been unbecoming to throw a party for this disrespectful son. The father, though, became undignified. He dropped his dignity. He let go of his pride. He disregarded his public persona. The father had one focus that day – his son who was lost and became found.
When it comes to our children, we must throw our dignity in the eyes of the world away. If we want to lead them to the throne, they must become our priority. What better way is there to show your kids they are important to you than by playing together? It may feel childish at times, but did not Jesus tell his disciples they must become like a child in order to enter the Kingdom of heaven? Playing with your kids will help them learn and develop, help you relax and become more energetic, and bring your family together in a way other things just cannot do. So become undignified like the father of the prodigal son. Become like a child, as Jesus instructed us to do. Bring your family together by understanding and prioritizing the importance of play.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
– Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (ESV)