If you’re the parent of a young child, you’ve probably marvelled at their ability to enter an imaginative fantasy world of play. Whether they’re by themselves or in a group, the importance of play seems to be hard-wired – but it’s more than just a fun way to spend their downtime. Following on from our February talk on “Balancing the play diet and the importance for boys’ mental health” from Dr Amanda Gummer, here we’ll explore the link between mental health and play, to discover why play is essential for healthy child development.
Between the ages of 4 and 7, children typically experience a host of big and sometimes difficult feelings. From the anxiety of separating from their parents to the satisfaction of carving out their own identity, there’s a lot going on in the mental worlds of young children, and imaginative free play can equip them to make sense of this.
Role play – whether that involves playing Mums and Dads or pretending to be a superhero – can allow children to act out and explore different roles and reactions, use different personas to become braver or more confident, and begin to empathise with other people. By helping them to understand and manage emotions in this way, play is an essential element of mental health in young children.
Child-led play, sometimes called free play, involves letting children take the lead, with no structure imposed by adults. Children get to decide what to do, how to play and what to play with. An important element of child development, child-initiated play allows children to explore their interests and learn on their own terms, testing out their ideas in a purposeful way. This type of play is essential for building confidence, which is vital for children’s mental health.
Being active is good for the body, but it’s also good for our mental health. And younger children don’t need to spend time at gyms and running tracks to get the physical activity they need; research shows that when children engage in active free play, they typically move around more than they would do in a PE lesson. If you’ve ever witnessed what happens when children are let loose in a playground, you’ll attest to the truth of this!
A mixture of play styles
Just as we need foods from every food group to stay physically healthy, children need different styles of play to benefit their mental health. A good ‘play diet’ mixes different approaches including active, child-led play, solitary play and rules-based play in the right proportions, to promote good cognitive, physical and social development.
We would like to say a big thank you to Amanda for such an informative and interesting talk. If you would like to find out more information on mental health in 4-7 year olds and other similar topics, take a look at the Fundamentally Children website.