The importance of creative play

‘The highest form of research is essentially play,’ wrote renowned education expert Neville V. Scarfe. Children then must be the most active researchers of all. They are constantly exploring what their bodies can do, the limits of the spaces they inhabit, and trying on different characters and lives in their creative play. In fact, play is so important to children’s development that the UN recognised it as a basic right of every child in 1989. So, what kinds of play are there, and what are the benefits for your child?

Physical and neurological benefits

Physical activity is good for us, we all know that. But in childhood it is absolutely crucial. Toddlers are learning what their bodies are capable of, constantly testing their limits, reaching for new things and getting faster.  A recent UK Government study for the Department of Health & Social Care suggested that children aged between one and five should spend at least three hours a day in active physical play. Ideally, at least part of this time would be spent outdoors.

This playtime has enormous benefits. It is essential for motor development, cognitive function and skeletal health. It even aids children’s psychosocial wellbeing. Research by US based Project Play showed that children who did plenty of regular physical activity scored higher test results. The amount of physical activity done in these early years also sets your child up for later life - the more they do now, the more they are likely to do later. This means they’ll be healthier for longer. So, encouraging those three hours of physical activity and making them fun has got to be a priority!

Free play and mental wellbeing

Busy parents will be relieved to know that not all this physical activity and play has to be carefully structured and watched over. Free play time should be unstructured and unscheduled. It is making the space for a child to explore what they can do. In early years this is usually purely physical, and gradually it will become imaginative.

As children develop, they progress through several distinct types of play:

  • Before they have developed communication skills, they’ll play alone with whatever is handy, so any toys you’ve given them or whatever they find lying around.
  • Next comes onlooker play, when a child will watch other children or adults and see how they do things.
  • Eventually, at around four years old, cooperative play emerges, in which they work with other children, building dens, imagining whole worlds, problem-solving and trying on characters and ideas for size.

Peter Gray, professor of psychology at Boston University, proved that a decline in this kind of free play time leads to depression, anxiety and a lack of self-control in children. In turn, this damages their future ability to function well in school and other social environments, and eventually in adult life too.

Play is hardwired into children for the very reason that it is so important to their development. The more they play, the better their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing will be.