The Benefit of Playing in Undirected Ways

Apr 30, 2024, 13:47 PM by Dr. Sally Robinson


One of the few things that most adults can agree on is that we live in complicated times. It seems that the more “things” we have to make life easier, the more stressful it becomes.  We are learning about how the brain develops with all the billions of neurons and how the brain learns, remembers data and utilizes it creatively.  How do we help our children’s brain develop and become prepared for the future?

There are many specialists in child development that would say the answer is play.  Centuries ago Plato said “do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play”.   One of the great educators of our time, Maria Montessori said “play is the work of the child”. 

So what is the play they are talking about?  It is not computer games.  Many neuropsychologists are studying and talking about unsupervised play. This does not mean that adults are not present but play should be undirected.  The amount of supervision should be age dependent to keep them safe but not to solve their problems for them.  Learning to build a tower of blocks takes many failures to learn design flaws and how persistence in trial and error creates a better tower.  The same learning takes place when playing kick ball and negotiating if the ball was kicked out of bounds.

Play starts with infants as they begin to learn about the world around them and how to be part of it.  By putting a toy (blocks or cups) in both of your lines of vision and then talking about the toy (its name, its colo, what is it used for). It is important that the phone or the TV not be part of the joint attention of baby and parent and that the time of the game be short but frequent.

Toddlers like to do stuff such as simple puzzles or simple routines like a making a pretend meal with play dough. Preschoolers (3-4 years old) might like making more complicated meals and desserts out of clay or building more complicated buildings out of blocks.  They might like pretend play such as pretending to go to the doctor’s or a store.  Their favorite toy animal might like to go to the zoo.  Playing London Bridge is Falling Down takes at least three children, two making the bridge and one to cross the bridge.  This simple game teaches a song and teaches cooperation and coordination.  Board games help learning about following the rules and being a good winner or loser.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education reports that free play helps children develop skills like creative thinking, analyzing patterns, using empathy and regulating their own emotions so they might develop into a healthy, happy person.  Social media has both good and bad aspects for children’s mental health.  It can interfere with the personal interaction for both parents and children.

George Bernard Shaw said “we don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stopped playing”.

Dr. Sally Robinson
Clinical Professor, Dept. of Pediatrics

Keeping Kids Healthy
Published 04/2023


Also See:  

UTMB Pediatrics - Pediatric Primary Care
UTMB After Hours Urgent Care
UTMB Clear Lake Hospital - Pediatric ER & Inpatient Unit

By Categories