Play is more than just fun. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, every child has a fundamental right to participate freely in play. Children need play to learn, and playing promotes wellbeing. We might associate learning through play with young children, but play is beneficial at all ages.
Unstructured play of the kind children might engage in during school breaktimes builds social, emotional, and cognitive skills, and facilitates learning in school. More adventurous outdoor play – jumping off a tree or into the deep end of a pool – may allow children to learn important life skills. Giving children space to explore and lead their own play can elicit feelings of excitement, and even fear, which may teach them to cope with uncertainty and evaluate risks.
That said, guided play within an environment that has been prepared by adults is beneficial too. Encouraging a particular kind of exploration or asking open-ended questions in key moments can help children think about what they are doing and therefore learn more. But it’s still crucial for the adult to follow the child’s lead. When adults play with children, their brains become synchronised, which helps children to learn. The interaction between the adult and the child can focus the child’s attention.
It’s not only physical play that’s beneficial – digital play through video games, online apps, and exergames can enhance cognitive skills.
Could supporting children to play, especially in nature, help them to balance hope with the reality of the challenges we face?
This video is part of the animation ‘Learning to thrive’. The animation and related resources bring these ideas to life, providing a space to engage in thinking about how caregivers and educators might support young people to thrive. This is also a space for researchers and science journalists to share the latest evidence on the role of nature, play, creativity and agency in young people’s wellbeing.