For modern parents, playing with their children often seems like a luxury. In the brief amounts of time they get to spend with kids between hectic work schedules, piano lessons, soccer practice, and making sure homework gets done, it’s easy to view play as frivolous. But in fact, play offers substantial physical, emotional and cognitive benefits for both children and their parents, according to Olympia Therapy owner Cary Hamilton.
“Play helps to promote our brain super powers that we all have innately,” she explains. “We’re all suffering from lack of play. If we all played a bit more, our stress would be less and our creativity would be higher.” Research has shown that when parents spend just 30 minutes a week during which the child leads and directs the action, it strengthens the parent/child relationship and decreases stress for both.
Benefits of Play for Children
One of the biggest benefits for children who play with their parents is an increase in neural connectivity and integration, which provides long-term health benefits. Play also develops executive functioning skills, increases academic learning, builds language development and increases imagination and creative skill development. Physically, it helps with gross motor skill development, balance and coordination.
Another important aspect of play is social and emotional. Working through problems and communicating their feelings helps children become more resilient while developing confidence. It also increases the likelihood that they’ll share what’s happening in their lives with their parents.
“If you take the time to set up that structure for 30 minutes a week and keep at it, the kids are going to look forward to it,” says Hamilton. “That will be the time when they’re really going to tell you what’s going on in their lives because you’re finally in their world, seeing the world through their eyes. They spend a lot of time in our world.”
Benefits of Play for Parents
As much as play is important for children, the benefits for parents are equally extensive. Those who engage with their kids in child-directed play are more productive, more creative, less stressed and therefore less prone to burnout over the long haul. They also experience increased mindfulness, more positive brain chemicals (or “Joy Juice” in Hamilton’s words) and better, more positive interactions with their children.
“When you’re in connection with your child and your brain is flooded with oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, those neurotransmitters actually fortify your brain against stress,” she explains. “As our stress levels go down, the curious parts of our brains are able to come online. You’re able to then go and be productive because your ‘joy juice’ is higher than it would normally be.”
Hamilton emphasizes that any situation can be approached in a playful way that will yield benefits, including momentary exchanges. Even little moments, like a parent walking with their children and pretending a curb is a balance beam or that a line in a parking lot is the way out of a maze, release positive neurotransmitters. “It’s being silly and goofy, even if you’re stressed out,” says Hamilton. “You’re going to get a more joyful response back versus an agitated one.”
Parents of children who attend Play Therapy sessions at Olympia Therapy are taught skills so they can continue the treatment at home. One of the keys is small changes in language that empower kids to make choices while allowing parents to maintain control. “Parents tell us all the time that it’s less stressful and easier to do than they expected,” says Hamilton.
As an example, if two siblings are arguing in the car, instead of yelling at them to stop or be quiet, a parent could state that if you choose not to fight you can choose television time in the afternoon. “It’s not punitive,” says Hamilton. “It’s solely based on the child’s choice. At the same time, we’re in control.”
While the approach shares some similarities with known parenting techniques like Love and Logic and 1,2,3, Magic, Hamilton maintains that those programs use choice differently. “This is about esteem-building and decision-making for the children not behavior management,” she explains. “There’s a big difference in how the language works.”
With so many benefits associated with play, particularly creativity and productivity, the real surprise is that more schools and businesses don’t incorporate it to destress. That, too, is changing, says Hamilton. Olympia Therapy provides training for teachers and organizations as part of what she hopes will become a societal shift in how we view play.
“It’s not that you’re being childish,” she says. “You’re speaking your native language, and that’s where healthy brain development lives.”