The last few decades has seen a flurry of research that confirms that play is essential to a child’s well being. In fact, in the 1990s, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognized play as a right of every child. A new study published in the journal PLOS One found that eight-year-old children who played a computer game synchronously – each at their own computer, but where “their movements were happening at the same time” – had a marked increase of feelings of similarity and closeness with one another once the game was over, says Tal-Chen Rabinowitch, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, and the lead author of the study.
Kids who played synchronously, asynchronously (together, but movements happening out of sync), and those who didn’t play at all were all measured. Once playing the game was over, the kids filled out a questionnaire and completed an exercise about their feelings about the child they were paired with, and the kids in the ‘in sync’ group reported an increase in similarity with one another that “encompassed a myriad of things,” says Tal-Chen, including “how they look, the number of friends they have, their musical tastes, how good they are at school. This was significantly more than the kids who were in the asynchronous group, as well as the group who didn’t play together at all.” Interestingly enough, the closeness measure also showed that those who played asynchronously felt closer than those who didn’t play together at all.
While the PLOS One findings are preliminary, and more research needs to be done concerning the bonds between children playing together, Tal-Chen thinks, “the very physical act of being in time together in their movements may be creating a cohesive experience between kids.”
Other developmental benefits
According to Liana Lowenstein, a child and family therapist in Toronto, “through play children develop skills, they learn to interact well with others, they learn to express thoughts and feelings, problem-solving skills, and a whole host of pro-social behaviours: sharing, turn taking, following rules, good sportsmanship and navigating disagreements,” for example.
Play is a big aspect of how children learn. “We know that children who play well with other children grow up to be better functioning adults, in their relationships with their spouse, children, coworkers, and bosses,” says Liana. “And it’s important for kids to have fun! If an activity or game children are playing with others is fun, it’s going to captivate their interest and they’re going to be more motivated to engage in the activity. It’s how children learn. If it is boring then they may not be so focused on it and they may not pay attention,” says Liana.
Parents can play a huge role in fostering play in their children’s lives. When parents are able to play well with their kids, it can help teach them to play collaboratively with other children. Things like working on puzzles or building with Legos are examples of playing collaboratively.
Even simple household tasks can teach children play and social skills. For example, soon the weather will be getting cooler and it’ll be time to rake leaves. Liana suggests parents and children rake together and then jump in the pile.
“That’s collaborative play.”
Fall into group play
September is the time to think about the activities you’d like to register your child for this coming school year.
- Dance, martial arts, or yoga are all activities where doing physical movements together is a key part of the process.
It’s also a good time to appraise the games you play at home. Consider activities that foster a sense of collaborative play.
- Play dress-up with your child or encourage your child to dress up and perform a skit while on a play date with another child, says famiily therapist Liana Lowenstein. Help facilitate the cooperative playing process and smooth out any bumps they might encounter.
- Have a family board game night once a week, or once a month, says Liana. Kids can have fun while learning important social lessons: following rules and tolerating losing, for instance.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, September 2015.