The Importance of Play in Nurturing Relationships and Avoiding Toxic Stress in Children

I spent some sweet time last weekend watching a group of children playing in the leaves. First, they raked up a bunch, tried to hide in them and then threw the leaves at each other. The children next engaged in some hearty sword fighting with the rake handles. And later, they brought over a dolly from their house to carry each other around on as they ran through the leaves.

the importance of play in reducing toxic stress

The Importance of Play

No one directed this play. It arose spontaneously from the children in response to the falling leaves. They knew just what to do. 

Often as parents we feel so responsible for our children’s development that we oversee and direct their play most of the time; we even play with them. But sometimes, the most important activism we can do as parents is to hold ourselves back. This may mean allowing our children to be bored so that they can tap into their own personal creativity. I found as a parent, that boredom was, in fact, the cauldron of creativity.

We have all heard the quote from Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” yet, as parents, we worry more about whether or not our children are getting enough knowledge than about whether or not they are using their imaginations. The studies agree with Einstein.

One study showed that children who spent more time in less structured activities were better able to keep focused on a task, were more curious and had greater self-regulation.

Twenty-six studies point to the importance of play for children. In fact, play has the potential to reduce inequality. The Hechinger Report looked at 26 studies from 18 countries and found that children in disadvantaged communities who had access to free and guided play, especially child-led activities, showed significantly greater gains in learning and in motor, social and emotional development than those who did not.

In their recent report on preventing toxic stress in children and among families, the American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes the importance of safe, stable, and nurturing relationships and recommends play as a way for families to decrease their stress and improve their relational health. In fact, it is through play that mammals learn. 

Encouraging Self-Directed Play

You may know all of this already, but if you need some ideas for kicking off or encouraging self-directed play, here are some things you can do with your child.

  • Go bike riding.
  • Take a walk at night when the moon is full.
  • Gaze at the stars.
  • Create an outdoor obstacle course.
  • Create a wildlife garden.
  • Make available some large cardboard boxes.
  • Give your children a video camera/phone camera to make their own movies out in nature.
  • Fill a box with old clothes, scarves, hats, jewelry and shoes.

And here are some activities you can encourage them to do on their own.

  • Go on a bug safari.
  • Make a map of the yard, the house, or the neighborhood.
  • Have a scavenger hunt.
  • Put on a treasure hunt.
  • Decorate each other’s faces with nontoxic face paint.
  • Make little boats from wood scraps and sail them.
  • Play in the woods.

Teach your kids to play old fashioned games

Jacks is fun to play inside, but other games, like marbles, jump rope, hopscotch, Hide and Seek, Kick Ball, Red Rover, Mother May I and Red Light/Green Light are better played outside. These last two are especially fun at dusk. And just in case you’ve forgotten how they go, refresh your memory with the rules to these and other games like Simon Says, Freeze Tag and Spud.

Wet squishy play

Young ones are especially keen on play that involves getting wet or gooey. You can easily find recipes online for cooked, uncooked and peanut butter playdough, for baker’s clay, sand dough, slime, and silly putty. Bubbles are everywhere now, but if you want to make your own, here’s a recipe:

Bubble Soap Mix

Mix ingredients together. The glycerin is for longer lasting bubbles and is optional, but you can find it at a drugstore. Make wands for the bubbles out of straws, cardboard toilet paper rolls, or wire bent into crazy shapes.

Have a messy party

By far, my favorite thing to do with young ones who demand wet and squishy play is a messy party, inspired by a wonderful article in Mothering magazine, “The Messy Party.” For the outside messy party, the author provided her toddler and his friends with flour, bowls, scoops, and sifters, big sheets of paper, kid-safe paint, rollers, brushes, and stamps, a wading pool and a hose. She says,

 “Kids need a place in time and space where the usual rules can be suspended, where flour and paint can fly and sprinkles can spill and a mud-covered shirt is cause for nothing but celebration. Their parents need to be able to relax together and compare notes without punctuating every sentence with “Don’t.” 

Unexpectedly, the messy parties evolved into spontaneous and casual family dinners together. “Suddenly,” she says, “we go from being a group of moms who share play dates to a community of families who share everything from baby gear to basketball games.”

Going downstream

My adult son frequently tells me to, “Just go downstream, Mom,” and I am comforted by his advice. Sometimes we try to be perfect parents, believing that it is up to us to create fun for our child.

The truth is that our child can “have fun” with a rock or a branch or a bunch of leaves. That’s part of the importance of play. Maybe our job as parents is not to try so hard—to facilitate rather than direct—so that our children can discover life on their own terms.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *