You’ve had a long day and all you want to do is crawl into bed and watch something mindless. But, your daughter has a different idea and is still running around like crazy with no sign of shut-down. While we see fun and games (not to mention bedtime routine breakdown), she is actually working out some important stuff before bed time. And in a roundabout way, her game may be just the thing to help her sleep soundly all night. Why is that and what is so important about play?


Play is complex business


We all know the basics: That play helps kids develop cognitive skills and achieve developmental milestones. But there is so much more to play than meets the eye. David Hockney said, “We tend to forget that play is serious”. This is because through play, kids are working out their inner worlds in complex and important ways. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud first noticed this when he was watching his four-year-old grandson play with a simple cotton reel. Freud observed how whenever the toddler’s mom left the room, the boy would use his index finger to push away a cotton reel and then roll it back towards himself. This game happened over and over again until his mom returned. Freud realised that through this simple game, his grandson was managing the worries that came up inside himself whenever his mom left him. You see, she was the cotton reel and the rolling back and forth was the way he reminded himself that mommy always comes back. While the little boy had no conscious idea about what he was doing, his play helped him work something out and sooth the unbearable. In this way, play helps kids cathartically express their emotions and push away negative feelings, by replacing them with something that feels good.   


Play is a space between the outside and the inside


Psychoanalyst and Paediatrician, Donald Winnicot, believed play to be a creative experience. He discovered that during play, kids begin to develop their sense of self in relation to the outside world and the people in it. This is necessary because things often happen in the outside world that are tough to manage. But during play you get to be the boss and manipulate outcomes and this feels good. Now add another child into the game. This kids comes with all their own ideas about how the game should be. Meaning control is not so easy. And so begins the important internal negotiation with how much we can and can’t control in the world. Which is a fundamental concept that even us adults grapple with. 


Play gives words to the wordless


Kids don’t have the emotional vocabulary to articulate exactly what they are feeling. But whether they can name the emotion or not, that feeling is absolutely there. So in order to name something intangible, kids interact with symbolic objects in a playful way. So for example, say a 5-year-old boy has to negotiate his mixed feelings about the arrival of his new baby sister: He can’t possibly articulate his frustration and jealousy. 

So, instead he might grapple with these uncomfortable ideas by lining all his cars up in a traffic jam and telling himself a story about red robots and car crashes. The traffic jam is his way of representing his frustrations at not being first in line anymore. Now he has to hold back his anger (the red lights) and the car crashes represent his anger towards his new sister for colliding with his world. What a useful game – better the cars crash then the siblings themselves! So in this way kids are able to use play to give wordless energy and feelings, a place to go and be safely named. 


Play builds relationships

Psychoanalyst, Mark Solms, explains that play is a core instinct. He points out that when kids play together, the game is only fun when it follows the 40/60 % rule – where the imbalance of power is acceptable to both parties. This comes down to collaboration. The minute someone has too much control, it’s not fun anymore and the game ends. This teaches kids about limitation, negotiation, social hierarchies and boundaries in relationships. In this way, play facilitates the learning of identity, the definition of roles and the acceptance of rule-regulated behaviour.

The bottom line

We are all very quick to pack our kids’ afternoons with tons of extra-murals and entertainment. But we need to consider what this is taking them away from. Sure they will be excellent soccer players or gymnasts. But will they be able to negotiate the difficult feelings that come up when they lose the match or feel rivalrous when a friend does a better tumble-turn? Fantasy and symbolic play are essential to a child’s mental and emotional development as it helps them resolve or master conflicts which are otherwise passively endured. When a child plays freely he can define his inner feelings and problems and express his personality in an authentic way. Making play an absolutely essential part of any healthy child’s development.

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