There is nothing quite like watching children who have lost themselves in their imaginative play. They seem to go somewhere that allows them to access a freedom and joy through their play. Play. How well do you do it? And is it necessary to play? Are we allowing and encouraging our children to play? Does play come before or after work? Or is play the work?

Play is described as a “free play of the mind, as a state of body and mind free from the boundaries, limitations and categories imposed by cultural conditioning.” And from play we learn how to have imagination, think beyond the boundaries, make things up, play it the way “we want it to be”. Einstein stated that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. I am sure his imagination was a birthing place for many of his innovative ideas.

Play is part of the emotional, social, psychological AND brain development. Joseph Chilton Pearce talks about play and brain development. He states that a child cannot have “real” learning unless they are playing. Real learning takes place by what Maria Montesorri would call “the absorbent mind of the child”. The absorbent child is absorbed in their universe. They become it and they do this through play. Play is the child’s most serious activity in their life because they are building their understanding of the world, themselves, and the relationship between the two. This is laying the foundation for other forms of intelligence. (Touch the Future). But the foundation has to be laid to move towards other forms of intelligence. Children have to play.

Play is how a child learns how to do the abstract thinking – moving from concrete reality to his mind where he can see the picture and then playing it out as a means of expressing himself. Through the child’s capacity to imagine (see images in his mind) he then can imitate and play out those images, which is a natural part of what happens when children know how to play. It is part of their development. This isn’t just important; it is critical. Children need to learn how to do “make believe”. Their ability to have imagination gives them a way to handle life. In Sweden there is a group of doctors who state that imaginative children are never violent. Their studies show that children who have the capacity for creating inner-world images are not violent because when they are faced with violence, they are able to imagine and implement alternative solutions. They create interior worlds which are alternative to what is outside of them. If the child doesn’t know how to imagine, he will stay locked into the lower process of early brain development, survival, and will reflexively react to his outside environment.
And the child who does not learn how to play, imagine and have the abstract in his mind, won’t have the skills for learning the abstract of ABC’s, geometry, and other abstract subjects later in life. For children, play is their work. Children need to play for healthy development in all areas. This is a concern as the American Academy of Pediatrics report is showing that children are becoming over-scheduled with structured enrichment opportunities to the point that play is not happening as it did in previous generations. Unstructured time for creating, exploring, and imagination is becoming a thing of the past. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics is suggesting that pediatricians examine children with stress checks to be sure that their schedule is not overloaded. Children are running from one enrichment activity to another. Then they come home and sit in front of the T.V. And T.V. takes away the need to have imagination. It literally prevents neural growth in the developing brains because it suppresses the capacity of their brains to create an internal image of something. It isn’t what is watched on T.V. as much as it is the technology of the T.V. The act of watching T.V. has a negative impact on us and on our children with developing brains.

So make sure that you are helping your children have time for play. This is an early developmental stage that needs to happen before three years old. And if your child didn’t get it, play with him at whatever age and teach him how to play, have fun, and get in touch with his imagination. And if you don’t know how to play, then schedule in time with your child because he can teach you how to abandon the constructs of your life and have some mind-freeing moments of play.

Touch the Future,
Pearce, Joseph Chilton (1977) The Magical Child

American Academy of ‘Pediatrics

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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