In a fast-paced, achievement-driven western society, children and families are moving further away from developmental experiences that are taken for granted and trivialized.
Laptops, tablets and smartphones are thrust into tiny hands to serve as pacifiers, babysitters and teachers by well-intended parents who wish to give their children a head-start in their technological literacy. Technology of today no doubt provides more pros than cons, but in young hands, it’s taking the place of a developmental necessity — play.
In the words of beloved children’s television icon Fred Rogers, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
Play is a universal behavior in children, occurring in all cultures throughout the world. Intrinsically curious and imaginative, children use it to explore, interact and discover the world. Play is necessary for healthy neurological, psychological, emotional and social functioning in children and is critical in developing a child’s senses: sight, sounds, smell, taste, touch, vestibular and proprioception.
It also is critical in developing a child’s fine and gross motor skills, language, abstract thinking and cognitive skills. Play enhances learning readiness, thinking and problem solving and helps a child develop social-emotional skills and emotional intelligence. The child uses play to communicate and process emotions, needs and experiences. Play serves as a vehicle for secure and healthy attachment and bonding with parents; the child learns and practices delayed gratification skills and the ability to wait, manage frustration and accept limits.
In addition to being a developmental necessity, play has the capacity to heal the inevitable hurts of childhood. It provides a developmentally appropriate means of allowing a child to communicate and heal from hurts in his or her own language. Play is the child’s language and toys are the child’s words.
The child recreates an event using toys as symbols that evoke emotions. The child projects the emotions onto the toys, providing safe distance and displacement. Play themes of children are rich in metaphorical representation. Being able to safely communicate these feelings in the context of an honoring relationship while being truly heard, valued and respected is where healing takes place. The child is able to experience their hurts and feelings in a safe and tolerable manner, constantly supported by the caring adult.
Is play reserved for only children? According to George Bernard Shaw, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.” Growing up, when bad things happen, or when good things don’t happen, the developing child can get “stuck” in their emotional and psychological development, despite progressing in their physical and intellectual growth.
All humans have the fundamental needs of feeling loved, feeling valued, feeling heard, and feeling safe. Unavoidably, no child is able to feel these things all of the time. Life happens.
Depending on the timing, intensity, frequency and with whom the child experiences a lack of any one of these, his or her inner child falls a step behind. Does this mean we should pathologize anyone who didn’t have a perfect childhood? Of course not. What it means is that each and every one of us has an inner child, needing to share his or her long-ago hurts and unmet needs. Play can be a vehicle that quickly and unconsciously taps into the inner child.
Take time to nurture your inner child, heal and experience firsthand the healing power of play by joining us at this year’s Sunset Sip: Nurture Your Inner Child at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, at the Hotel Maya. Sunset Sip is an evening for our friends and supporters to raise funds that will allow us to continue providing services to economically-disadvantaged children and families, and to raise mental health awareness in the community. For more information, visit http://bit.ly/SUNSETSIP2017.
Nathan Swaringen, LCSW, is a clinical therapist at The Guidance Center, a child and family mental health nonprofit organization headquartered in Long Beach.