When children play, they learn. They solve problems, think strategically, learn how to relate to others, and manage life’s ups and downs. Through play, children make sense of the world around them, and through new experiences, they connect something they don’t understand to something they already know.
When my son, The Boy, was younger he used to have daily opportunities to play dress-up at school, transforming himself into a doctor, a fireman, a chef, or a farmer tending to the imaginary creatures in his care. He learned to enjoy play with classmates and friends. Together they learned how to count customer change while pretending to be cashiers, they recognized letters and colors while stocking the book corner shelves as make-believe librarians, and they discovered the laws of physics when a friend knocked over their block towers pretending to be an earthquake.
Playing helped him learn and develop social and cognitive skills, expand his vocabulary, and to explore his surroundings. Through games on the playground, he learned how to follow rules and the importance of taking turns. He enjoyed playing and didn’t realize he was learning!
We were both recently reminded of the importance of play.
Now that my son is a teenager, play looks different. He no longer builds forts. Now he wants to work out at the gym, walk around the mall or the community pool with friends. Free time on his own or with friends reduces his stress.
In the last months, The Boy has had a very busy schedule with back-to-back after-school practices and traveling for sports. He went from one activity to the next without downtime. Unfortunately, his grades began to suffer, as he chose not to complete assignments because of his schedule. We sat down together to evaluate his extracurricular activities and school work.
At first, I eliminated all after-school activities until his grades improved. Despite giving him time to complete his assignments, The Boy continued to struggle with turning in homework, preparing for tests, and not completing his household chores. During dinner one night we talked honestly about his grades, his unpleasant attitude, and what we could do together to boost his school performance. He told me he was bored with just going between school and home every day. He wanted to go back to the gym and spend time with his friends outside of school. He told me he needed downtime and a little freedom from completing assignments.
Together we worked on a schedule to help him get back on track with his schoolwork and chores at home. We also made sure that there was time to “chill” without expectations. His new routine gives him time to complete tasks during the evening and time to play video games, go to the gym, hang out at the bus stop, or just a nap after school. His grades are improving, he is less stressed about his schoolwork, and our conversations are about events he is looking forward to rather than his past-due assignments.
I learned to a lesson: Leave time for fun and play at every age!