Why Play is Important for Preschoolers

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Play is one of the richest forms of childhood expression. When a young child plays, you can see the wheels turning in his brain. Play is how children process worries and fears, work through challenges, and learn new skills.

According to the AAP, time for free play for children has been reduced markedly over the years for reasons such as a more hurried lifestyle, changing family structures, and increasing attention to academics and enrichment activities at the expense of recess and time to play after school.

Why are children playing less?

Well, the answer to this isn’t simple. Many things have contributed to this unfortunate predicament. Our culture has shifted some allowing for less free time and prompting parents and teachers to put a higher priority on academics and structured activities, leaving less time for kids to play freely. 

Also, safety has become a primary concern. With the world at our fingertips, we see bad news everywhere. Though the world isn’t any less safe than it was when we were kids, we see more of the danger day in and day out. We see and hear it everywhere – scrolling through social media, our favorite podcasts, news stations on TV, the radio on the way home from work. It’s in your face, all the time. It’s hard to give our kids independence and free reign to play outside when they aren’t under our watchful eye.

Another big factor is that we just lead busier lives. Families come in all shapes and forms and many are single-parent households where mom or dad is holding down two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Even in two-parent households, both parents likely work in or out of the home, leaving little time for much else. 

Whatever the reasons for this change, it’s imperative that we get creative and find ways to give our kids time to play in an unstructured setting. It’s crucial for their development and well-being. 

What are the benefits of play for preschoolers?

Children, especially toddlers and preschoolers, benefit from play for so many reasons. Play is not something to be done as an afterthought. Play is the real work of childhood. 

  1. Play helps children work through anxiety and fears by acting out real-life scenarios in a safe environment with their friends, peers, and caregivers.
  2. Play increases a child’s physical activity level, reducing the possibility of health concerns that come with a more sedentary lifestyle.
  3. Play allows children to bond with their caregivers on a deeper level, increasing the connection between parent and child and building stronger relationships.
  4. Play gives children a safe place to express feelings and work on communication skills.
  5. Play helps develop social-emotional skills by allowing kids to interact on their own terms.
  6. Play reinforces lessons being taught at home and at school by putting math/science/reading/writing/art in a whole new context.
  7. Play increases a child’s confidence by allowing them to try new things without fear of mistakes.
  8. Play gives children the chance to practice learning to adapt to new situations.
  9. Play allows children to express their creativity and explore new interests.
  10. Play lets children practice decision-making skills.
  11. Play increases a child’s confidence.
  12. Play allows children to collaborate and work together toward a common goal.
  13. Play gives children a chance to practice leadership skills through cooperative games where each person has a decided role.
  14. Play helps kids learn to share, cooperate, and get along by letting them work through and resolve conflicts on their own.
  15. Play with siblings and friends reduces time spent in front of a screen.
  16. Play allows children to interact with the world around them, leading to a much richer sense of self and ability to connect with others.
  17. Play engages all the senses, letting children experience the environment around them in a whole new way.
  18. Play is fun.
  19. Play gives adults a new way to interact and spend quality time with their children. 
  20. Play encourages outside-the-box thinking.

How can we creatively include more play time for preschoolers when life gets crazy?

Well, the answer is in the question. It takes planning, forethought, and some creative ingenuity. Here are a few tips.

Limit each child to one extracurricular activity per season. In doing so, your child still benefits from participating in a sport or hobby with peers sharing the same interest, but you won’t be so overloaded. This leaves more time for other things (like free unstructured play time!)

Set aside just 10-15 minutes when you get home from work/school/daycare to just engage fully in your child’s world doing whatever they want to do. Set your stuff down, take off your shoes, turn your phone on silent, and give your little one your full attention for that time. Set a timer if you need to, but make sure they know that specific time is theirs and theirs alone to do whatever they please. If they want to read a book, play with blocks, or draw with chalk on the sidewalk – do it. Those small bits of time add up and really make a difference in the long run. Even if you can only do this a couple of times a week, it’s still worth it to make the effort.

Keep mornings screen-free. If you can streamline your morning routine and avoid the distraction of screens, then when your child is ready to go, they can have a few minutes while you finish up last-minute preparations to sit and play with a bucket of cars or a favorite baby doll. 

Keep toys in convenient locations throughout the house. Make use of a decorative storage ottoman in the family room, loading it up with puzzles and board books. Fill a drawer with plastic containers and utensils in the kitchen that your child can play with while you prepare meals. Keep a basket of toys and bubble bath in the tub for a little fun during their evening soak. With toys at your fingertips, it’s easy to make the most of little moments. And little moments add up.

What comes next?

Well, if you found this article helpful, please share across your favorite social media channels. It’s so important for parents and teachers to make sure that play is not an afterthought. It’s necessary and needed for healthy growth and development.

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