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What Kids Need: To Play

I had trouble coming up with a topic this week because kids need a lot of things these days. They need to laugh, they need to exercise, they need socialization, they need to wiggle, they need to create. But really this boils down to the fact that kids need to play.

Play looks different for different ages. In infancy, babies are learning social skills so initial cooing and smiling develop into peek-a-boo and pat a cake. In the toddler age range, it will mean imitating grown-up life and allowing one object to symbolize another. Kids this age like to use a toy vacuum while their parents are vacuuming, can pretend they are parents to their dolls, and might insist a block is actually an airplane. Preschool-aged children can play together and enter into imaginative play, acting out stories or being characters they have seen. Once kids hit kindergarten, they can play games based on rules they agree they need to follow.

Although play looks different as they age, the need for it stays the same. Small children can't discuss their feelings in a rational way but they can act them out. This is why play therapy can be so useful to children. It gives them a chance to work through their feelings and rearrange the outcome into something more palatable, giving them some control in a world where they have little.

What happens when we take play away and replace it with video games? First, they never get to experience real life. Small kids dwell in a world of magical thinking so they can't actually tell the difference between real and make-believe. I have had patients who have trouble falling asleep or awaken from nightmares but insist the scary video games they play have nothing to do with it. They like to be scared. Perhaps that is true, but I can't help but think their brains are processing at night what should be worked through during the day with play.

What about other videogames like Minecraft, where kids are developing? Or multi-player games where teens use headsets to talk to their friends as they play through the game? I think there is room for this. We live in a world where technology is critical and socializing is limited. There is little harm in an 8-year-old spending a couple of hours a day on Minecraft or a teenager playing games with friends. But this is a different kind of playing, an escape rather than an investment. We all benefit from a little escapism now and then, but eventually, we need to come back to reality and interact with the real world.

Some of this playtime should be outside. God built an incredible playground for us which many people rarely experience. We have forests fallen trees, making excellent pretend swords, bridges, and forts. A child can spend hours building a shelter with sticks and moss, making homes for fairies or themselves, getting dirty, and having fun. When we disconnect from being outside, we risk distancing ourselves from our Creator. When Jesus went off to pray, the Bible tells us He often went outside- to the garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, the wilderness. To get closer to God, He went outside. It spiritually fills us up if we go outside sometimes too.

Teenagers and adults no longer embrace play as kids do, but we still need it. Think about how fun it is to explore new sights, tastes, and experiences. We pay lots of money for the thrill of roller coasters or skiing down a mountain. I have also been awed at the intricacy of delicate flowers in an orchid garden and the profound talent of actors in plays. I laugh when jumping in leaves with children and feel proud when I get a compliment on a piece of clothing I sewed myself. For big people, play means discovering and interacting. We don't call it play anymore, but we still do it. We still need it.

What happens if play is replaced? I think we disconnect. We stop listening to our bodies say we are full so we eat too many chips and ice cream while mindlesslessly watching our favorite shows. We become obese. We process the day while trying to sleep, having neglected this during the day when we should have been playing. So we get insomnia. Instead of connecting to other people, we connect to characters who can't love us back or to snippets of friend's lives so brief they hardly count. We get depressed and anxious.

I know there are real problems that do not stem from watching too much TV or doing too much Facebook. No matter how much catch you play with your son, if you don't have enough money to buy food at the end of the day, there will be anxiety. If you cannot afford to buy nutritious food, your body may feel sluggish, grow obese, and have difficulty sleeping. I get it that there are lots of factors that make life hard. But playing is free and it is a great antidote for some of life's burdens.

So next time you or your child seems overwhelmed or down, offer to play a game. It can be inside: a board game, a pool noodle sword fight, building a tent, and reading a story inside. Or it can be outside: make an obstacle course and race through it together, play some soccer, jump in a pile of leaves. Every kid needs back to the basics play- even (especially?) grown-up kids.

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