The Importance of Play


“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve been reading way too many child-rearing books recently. It’s comes with the territory of being a new mom and wanting to give your child every advantage in life. With all the advice I’ve read, one that strikes me as particularly solid is to foster your child’s creativity and problem-solving skills through free play. No one tells you what to do. You simply use your imagination and the environment around you as inspiration. There are no ribbons to be earned, no goal set at the end of the day. Just have fun.

I thrived on free play during my own childhood. I grew up in a rural area with a large back yard, plenty of toys, and enough siblings to start a basketball team. I spent time outside – pretending to run a restaurant, re-enacting my favorite cartoon scenes, and mucking around in the dirt. I spent time inside – constructing elaborate societies with colorful ponies, tracing the same pictures over and over onto lined paper, and trying to beat the high scores off pointless video games. The memories blur together into one happy kaleidoscope.

When I became a teenager, the activities changed, but the general attitude toward play didn’t. As my peers stopped getting allowances and starting finding part-time jobs, I continued to have ample free time. I wrote cheesy poems, tinkered with my electronic keyboard, and talked comic books with other teens on chat boards. I often asked my parents why they weren’t trying to instill a “sense of responsibility” by making me do more adult things. (I was actually a little jealous of those kids with jobs, since I wasn’t allowed to have one. It seemed cool to have more fiscal control of your life.) My parents told me my only job was being a student. Beyond that, a person only gets to be a kid once, so I should enjoy it while it lasted.

In other words, they told me kids should play.

Fast forward to today, and I am no longer jealous that I didn’t work at a fast food restaurant when I was 16. Sure, I “wasted” a bunch of time playing video games, something many might assume was detrimental to my overall character. But the funny thing is, even the time I used to play video games translated into skills I would use as an adult. Elaborate video game stories fueled the first novella I ever wrote. I made many, many friends in high school through the “nerd connection.” I loved games so much that I devoted much of my college career to finding a job in the industry. Now I have business experience in games, and still do freelance work in that field from time to time.

It makes me wonder about the importance of play. Kids obviously need their play time, a time away from helicopter parents to discover worlds of their own. But I think adults could use a little more play time too. A time where you don’t care if you get anything done, a time to try new things or rediscover something you’ve forgotten you loved. You can enjoy it solo or take your friends and family along for the ride. Let it be guilt-free and playful. And if something great comes out of it, like a job skill, it’s just a bonus, but never the goal.

For anyone worried that playing might make adults irresponsible, just remember my parents’ parameters (slightly modified) – You have core obligations, probably work and a family. Beyond that, a person only gets one lifetime on this earth. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Photo by muha…

19 thoughts on “The Importance of Play”

  1. Thanks Deborah,

    I just loved this post. So many of us have been serious since, well, as long as we can remember. Play is good for us , its a great stress reliever and can bring some light and balance into our lives. At times when I’ve needed it I’ve committed to a weekly play date. An afternoon to juts have fun however and with whomever I wanted. It’s like maigc.


  2. We can all do with having play time in our lives ;)
    I think quality time should also be decided to plan social and play time into our lives, and given just as much importance if not more than work. We all know with today’s high level of workaholic tendency play time can be forgotten. Play allows us to tap into our creative and intuitive abilities which in turn have a contributing effect towards working performance. I often get my best ideas when I spend quality time relaxing, socialising and having fun. It reminds us why we are all here ;)

  3. Nice post, Deborah. I’m enjoying playing around right now at the computer over lunch. As the father of kids who are 7 and 4, I’ve found that some parents today aren’t very comfortable with encouraging free play. They think it’s somehow neglecting their kids or that they should be doing something structured and educational with them at all times. You didn’t grow up that way, and neither did I. So as my kids are getting a little older and more independent, my wife and I are trying to buck that trend. We tell them, “Ok, go figure something out on your own.” It’s been a bit shocking for them, since they’ve been used to more structured schedules. But they’re slowly learning how to occupy themselves better. Like anything, it takes practice. And the beauty of it is that the better they get at play, the more play time I get for myself.

    1. I’m glad to hear you’re encouraging more free play. As you’ve mentioned, I think it supports independence and teaches them to entertain themselves. If you give kids more control over their lives, even if it’s play time, they will slowly learn to be more self sufficient in other areas. And as a parent, I know the value of having a little time to yourself as well!

  4. Hi Deborah,
    Since I have become a father I’ve been watching more kids shows and feeling more child like again. When we become adults we often forget that we are just big kids and it is okay to play.

    1. Isn’t it great how kids help you feel young? I know it sounds corny, but you really do learn a lot from your children (and many of your parents’ “bizarre” habits now seem more reasonable).

  5. This is a great post.
    Letting kids be kids is so incredibly important… Just a *bit* more important than letting adults be kids, once in a while. It’s a shame that when we grow up we lose that childlike sense of play, curiosity, and so on. It’s important for adults as well. :) Those childlike values are great things to build from, even at your big grownup daytime job. Anything you do from a sense of childlike enthusiasm will work out so much better than a thing you do from “ugh the boss says I have to do this, oh well…”

    A lot of the wisdom from those child-raising books can probably be applied to yourself as well. :)

    1. It is a shame we lose that childlike sense of play. It could be developmental, but it could also be that we feel we don’t have time to play.

      And I agree, lots of good advice for adults in those child-rearing books. :)

    2. Letting kids be kids is so incredibly important! YES!!!

      School and Jobs are so overrated!

      I believe that the real reason most parent want to put kids in school as soon as possible, daycare at 10 month and school at 4yo, and job at 16 is to “place them away” in order to allow them to continue there egocentric responsible adult stuff.

      Hiding from the fact that the most important task they will probably have to do in their entire life is actually to raise their kids.

      I think freedom, play and creativity are way better investment than overdoing school and jobs! Especially in this a new era where job security is gone and where those who strive in life are creative out of the box entrepreneur!

      Nice post Deb!


      1. Thanks for the response, Chuck. I’m starting a new game business with some awesome people, and again, it strikes me how important play is for entrepreneurs. We need to be able to think differently than how other companies do. We need to experiment and take risks. Play gives us the basis for many of these skills. So glad again my parents emphasized play.

  6. yes – and i wish kids these days would spend more time romping on grass than on their digital devices, not even lifting their heads to say hello and acknowledge people around them
    as parents, i think we need to guide them to proper play so they will enjoy and grow with it
    Noch Noch

    1. Completely agree about digital devices. Play helps us learn how to behave with others. If you’ve always got your head attached to a device, you’ll never learn those skills. And besides, it should be fun to play. :)

  7. Thank you for this! It was very timely for me to read! I find it rather easy to charge ahead and work, work, work on whatever I think I need to get done, but when I do that, I lose perspective and become more and more rigid about the task I’m working on. The end result is never nearly as good as when I take the time to really play, to just play and enjoy it, and regain perspective through it.

    Thanks again for taking the effort to write this! It was just what I needed!

  8. I love your parents’ view of childhood :’).
    And you are absolutely right, one DOES learn a lot by playing. I learnt (or invented) the concept of multiplying watching my brother play strategy games. You know, 12 marines, 4 for each of his 3 bunkers. My parents were impressed ^^.
    If I ever have children, I’ll remember to use this philosophy, thanks for sharing~

    1. Isn’t it great how much you can learn from playing? Most of my love of books comes from acting them out with my sisters. I convinced myself at a young age I was going to be a movie star, and we put on little plays of our favorite stories at Thanksgiving and Christmas for our families. I’m still a terrible actress, but I learned to love reading at that age.

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