Positive Play

Today we hiked.

The heat was blistering but the lead hiker kept a steady, fairly brisk pace for the first 30 minutes. After that she stopped a few times in an attempt to take close-up photos of butterflies alighting on flowers. Shortly thereafter, she vacated the lead position and, having decided a rest was in order, hitched a ride on her Mom’s shoulders for the next few moments before eventually resuming the hike on foot.

The lead hiker was Madison, our almost three year old granddaughter. While much of her independence is innate, research suggests that natural environments increase children’s sense of independence as play in natural spaces is more likely to be perceived by children as free from adult agendas and therefore open to more opportunities.

Additionally both Madison and her five year old sister Sophia are sturdy and strong because their parents have wisely made a conscious decision to make play and physical activity a priority in their lives. Most of it isn’t structured sports or clubs although there is some of that in their lives with gymnastics and soccer. Instead it is more about unstructured, informal play with family hikes thrown in for good measure.

The experts show that it is this unstructured play that is better for children in terms of the calories burned per minute. Research has found that doing 15 minutes a day of moderate exercise (enough to get a child a little out of breath) lowers children’s chances of being obese by almost 50 per cent. Additionally, children who access play opportunities enjoy another whole set of significant benefits. 

Play supports their sense of wellbeing, emotional development, learning and interpersonal skills, health, and independence. 

Madison and Sophia also spend a significant amount of time role playing their favourite characters – princesses having tea parties with their mommies and daddies seem to be really big right now. Experts also see that kind of play as being important as it is believed to provide the opportunity to develop the sense of wellbeing that will allow them to experience who they are or might be. Through play children can question, learn to speak for themselves, and form their identities. This helps them define who they are as well as develop their creativity and imagination.

Anyone listening to their dialogue would also hear them expressing emotions that on any typical day could include happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, or anger. Children learn to control these primary emotions because the rules of play ensure they learn the social emotions of sympathy, guilt, shame, pride, and embarrassment that prevent overreactions to situations.

Perhaps even more important is that play is a fun and enjoyable experience – it encourages further exploration, novelty and creativity.

It’s also fun for the adults. I know that I for sure will always hold dear the picture of two little girls – one dressed as a princess, the other as Snow White - running and spinning across our front lawn.

Posted on 07-27-09

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