Some kids love sports (I wasn’t one…) and others love make-believe. Some like puzzles, or dress-up, or word games. Others like to practice agility, explore, or play hide-and-seek. No matter how your child plays, let them! Play is fundamental to their social and emotional development. All types of play present many opportunities for kids to practice the skills they need to develop as successful people.
Think of emotions that arise throughout the course of a game: excitement, frustration, reluctance, patience, competition, determination, defeat...it’s a spectrum of feelings that our kids get to experience as they play. Whether they’re happy, sad, or just tired when it ends, they’re reminded it was only a game. But the chance to test-drive these emotions in a cooperative, non-judgmental setting is so important to how they, as individuals, will deal with them in everyday life.
It’s not just emotional intelligence, play encourages social smarts too. There are tools like conflict resolution, teamwork, empathy and strategy, which are muscles kids develop and work each time they play with others. These skills make strong, functional people. The more socially aware a child is, the more likely they are to engage positively with society as they grow older, which is known as prosocial behavior. This study shows a link between social competence in kindergarten and prosocial behavior as adults that is remarkable
Just as important as social awareness is self-awareness: thinking about how you interact with the world around you. Learning the thrill of discovery, the challenge of discipline, and the wonder of creative exploration in play will help kids lead more fulfilled lives, in which they can embrace challenge and novel experiences without being absorbed in, or distracted by their feelings.
All situations present unique opportunities to build relationships and navigate them. It’s important to provide opportunities for play in each setting for your child, but be careful not to over-structure play. As some people “learn best by doing,” it’s also true that kids will learn relationship skills better by figuring out the right way on their own. It's good to be available in case a true need arises, but best to let kids explore and experiment for themselves. Whether the game is collaborative or solitary, play can help kids learn, build confidence and appreciate their abilities.