Have you ever thought about the purpose of play?  Have you wondered whether it’s just a way to pass the time, or it’s a welcome break from work, or even a waste of time?  The interesting thing is, play is an integral part of our being, no matter what our age.  Whether you are 5 years old or 95, play is something you can enjoy, and also benefit from.  

People who study human development would say that play is pivotal for healthy development.  More specifically, they would say that it is fundamental to a child’s brain development and their maturation process.  But does this apply to all kinds of play?  When we observe our children we can see them involved in activities such as dress ups, sports, board games, role plays, building, pulling things apart, art, video games, all sorts of things; all of which may give opportunity for fun, experimentation, developing the imagination, learning skills and building relationships.

But on taking a closer look, we might see some differences between what might be healthy play and what might be basic entertainment.  And what’s wrong with entertainment you may ask?  Nothing really, but if our children are predominantly caught up in entertainment activities, then this might be at the expense of healthy play and real relationships.  As a result they might face some significant challenges, in terms of their personal maturation and growth in relationships.

So what might be categorised as entertainment?  In previous years the answer might have been something simple like watching television, but now it has extended to the increasing world of digital devices.  Now, your next question might be, what’s wrong with these anyway?  Generally speaking, there is nothing inherently wrong with age appropriate use of these devices, but the problem can lie in how much time our children are connected to them.  The fact is, their extended use can impact on children significantly.

Brain research would inform us that most video games are designed to reward the brain centres that are meant to be rewarded by relational closeness.   As a result, extended time engaging in digital devices (such as video games) can spoil the child’s desire for family connection so that the child might fail to pursue closeness with family members.

On a different note, some people might argue that playing video games can help develop certain cognitive-motor skills, but there is no evidence to suggest we need to play video games to achieve this result.  To the contrary, research would highlight that there is evidence to show that extended use of digital devices has a negative impact on physical development, eyesight development and sleep cycles.

What also needs to be considered, is that the use of digital devices fails to achieve what healthy play can.  Healthy play can help a child grow in responsibility and independence, learning life skills, and the development of resilience and adaptiveness.

So how can we encourage healthy play?  Play can be spontaneous, structured or guided.  It can be enjoyed alone or in the company of others.  Healthy play is not about winning the game but about enjoying it and appreciating others.  So, you might ask, isn’t it enough that our children have their friends and toys to play with?  No.  Children need parents and caring adults to be involved in their play (as well as other activities) to guide them, and role model for them in how to play well.

To summarise, healthy play is a vital part of child development and requires the involvement of parents and caring adults.  It is something we can all enjoy and benefit from, and it encourages development of meaningful relationships.  At the same time, we need to be aware of our choices around the emergence of modern technology, with all its benefits.   Our children need us to make healthy play and developing real personal connections the main thing, and not allow the over-use of digital devices and social media to detract from these.

Yvonne Craword / Counsellor