The Value of Play

by Maureen Bouey
May 2004

“The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things.”
Plato (427 BC - 347 BC)

Education isn’t a contest or a race; it’s a process, and one that each human child experiences differently.

As parents, we love our children and want the best for them, but these days there is an unmistakable ambiance of competitiveness around the lives of children.

In California, there is now even a prenatal university; pregnant women are taught how to stimulate the baby while in the womb to produce a brighter child!

We fill our kids’ days, weeks and months – sometimes to overflowing – with both in and out-of-school activities, as we try to give them every possible advantage. Many parents spend much of their day in their cars, ferrying children to and from school, lessons and sports. It’s all done from, and for, love, of course.

Just for a moment, let’s stop, take a deep breath, and remember:

1) With respect to learning, formally structured learning environments are not the only way to learn, and
2) Plain good old-fashioned fun – for its own sake – is an important factor in every child’s (and every adult’s) well-being.

First, it is often said that “play is children’s work”. Imaginative play and experiential hands-on (kinesthetic) learning is important to children’s learning processes. Play also helps children of all ages to be more creative, and self-sufficient.

Just some of the benefits of playtime are: creativity, thinking and language skills, small and large muscle building, conflict resolution opportunities and many other important physical, cognitive and social skills.

Well-known medical expert and media personality, Dr. Alan Greene1 notes, “We know that active play improves school performance, concentration, mood and behaviour.” Play is simply fundamental to healthy minds and bodies. And, life lessons learned while having fun with siblings and friends often wind up having the deepest impact, and being the most memorable.

“If A is success in life, then A equals X plus Y plus Z. Work is X; Y is play; and Z is keeping your mouth shut.”
Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

The second point is that fun is an important factor in our overall well-being. It is essential for us to keep schedules that allow harmony between work and play time. We all need to rejuvenate and refresh ourselves with play – regularly. “Play” can be any spontaneous activity that is unstructured.

A spontaneous activity is different from enrolling a child in Little League or signing her up for violin lessons (however worthwhile these are). Spontaneous play occurs when we do an activity freely, without being directed. When children organize their own ball game, puppet show or an afternoon of imagining, they are meeting their own needs for spontaneous play.

More and more experts agree that this kind of spontaneous play is key for children’s physical health, as well as for their emotional well-being. Famous Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, in his celebrated book on educating children3, “You are worried about seeing him spend his early years in doing nothing. What! Is it nothing to be happy? Nothing to skip, play, and run around all day long? Never in his life will he be so busy again.”

The United Nations even included the right to play in the 1989 UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child.

“If you want to see what children can do, you must stop giving them things.”3 They really do not need, or particularly benefit from, the vast quantities being showered on them. Dr. Greene suggests providing your child with a few simple, versatile toys: blocks, Lego, wooden spoons and bowls, etc., to allow the imagination room to play.

I remember when my sister and her two pre-school aged boys came to visit one summer; my sister and I got some large fridge and stove cardboard boxes from an appliance store and brought them home. The boxes became forts, houses, schools – the kids liked them so much, in fact, they wound up laying them on their sides and “camping” in them with sleeping bags at night. Each had his/her own “bunker” and decorated and painted it according to individual taste. It was free, it was fun, it was creative, and it was memorable!

If your children complain of being bored, too many scheduled activities could be the culprit. In an Internet published document on this subject, the Illinois Early Learning Project Research Centre4, notes: “If a child says, ‘I’m bored,’ she may need more unstructured time for play.”

Children need down time and time to be alone – some more than others. They need time when their imaginations and creativity can take hold and they can be utterly absorbed in whatever they are doing. These are the times when children experience the full benefits of play. Avoid lots of television watching; you may or may not want to completely restrict your child’s TV viewing, but remember, TV watching does not fall into the category of “creative” spontaneous play.

Children learn by observing what you do, not doing what you say. All of us need to play to balance ourselves. Katherine Gibson, in “Unclutter Your Life”, talks about “cluttered kids”5.

“… kids are over-organized…Instead of tunneling their way to China in the backyard, these tiny tykes are conducting interactive, multimedia explorations of simulated archeology {using the computer}digs – all without dirtying their Baby Gaps...”

Children and adults alike, we all benefit from a balance of work and play in our lives. If we want our children to lead harmonious lives, we need to do two things: role model both working and playing, and give our kids space to just “be” who they are. After all, as many Buddhists say, we are human beings, not human doings.

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”
Carl Jung (1875 - 1961)

1 Chief Medical Officer of A.D.A.M., Founder & CEO of, and Pediatric Expert for On the Clinical Faculty at Stanford University School of Medicine, President of Health Internet Ethics, helped URAC develop its standards for eHealth accreditation.
2 Emile, 1762
3 Norman Douglas
4 Part of the Illinois State Board of Education.
5 Katherine Gibson, Unclutter Your Life. (Victoria: Beyond Words Publishing) p. 100