Playing to Raise Happy, Healthy Children


Long gone are the days of playing dress-up, tag, and action figures. Becoming a parent often means losing the ability to play! Yet whimsical free play is crucial to children’s development, according to Nancy O’Conner, the director of the Family Center at Kansas State University. O’Conner, a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist, suggests that in order to raise happy, healthy children, parents may want to relearn how to be a kid again.

The Importance of Play

Free play gives parents and children the opportunity to interact, talk, move around, and engage in creative activities. O’Conner states, “Play encourages the mastery and development of the crucial C’s: courage, capable, connect, count.”

family_playingChildren who engage in creative, free play with their parents can develop feelings of bravery and courage as they stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones. Imaginary social play allows children’s mind to wander and create a world of their own. This in turn, also helps children feel capable of doing things, which helps them to have more positive thoughts about themselves because they feel their ideas and actions count.

O’Connor also suggests that free play between parents and children is a way to establish very early relationships. Free play helps children to feel less shy when they’re around their peers. Playing with other children their age helps them to connect and form bonds. Forming healthy attachments to others is one of the most important criteria for mental health in adulthood.

How to Play with Your Child

Here are a few of O’Connor’s suggestions on how parents can relearn to play:

  • Give children your undivided attention. Switch off the electronics, step away from Netflix and Hulu, and play with your children. Spending quality time with your children shows them they are valued and loved.
  • Create traditions. Baking pancakes together on Saturday mornings or playing in the park on the weekends are simple ways to start special traditions with your children. Remember, playtime should be joyful and relaxing!
  • Communicate with your child. Pay attention to your child’s words, gestures, and expressions. During free play, use your child’s language and gestures to help create a fun, safe zone for your child.
  • Dress up for a movie. Frozen 2? Is that a thing, yet? If not, a Frozen sequel is probably in the works. Dress up in costumes with your child for opening weekend at the local movie theatre; or, any weekend for that matter.
NeuroNet Note

playingUnstructured, free play changes the connections of the neurons in the prefrontal cortex, that is, the front of a child’s brain. It’s role is regulating emotions, making plans, and solving problems. When children free play, they have to decide what to play, what rules to follow, and how to negotiate with peers. Making these brain connections helps build a neural network for other life learning, even schoolwork. Learn more about how NeuroNet builds neural networks for math, reading, and handwriting.

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