By Alison McClymont
“Play is where we find our real selves” (Donald Winnicott, 1971)
Child Psychologists have championed the emphasis of play and imagination on the healthy development of a child for over 50 years. Erik Erikson (1963) said that “make believe” games at the crucial life stage of ages 3-5 will help a child find their “purpose”, through the promotion of a sense of inner belief in their abilities, and Piaget (1971) claimed that imaginative play is a crucial stage in the cognitive development of children aged 2-7 helping them to develop abstract thought and problem-solving skills. Mooli Lahad (1992) discovered that through imaginative expression, children develop emotional coping skills and those with greater expression of imagination were shown to cope better with later life crises.
Neuroscientists have actually discovered that play increases brain plasticity - play has been shown to fire up synaptic connections between different parts of the brain and activates the brain’s emotional hard drive, the amygdala. When children engage in social play, fMRI data shows increased activity in the pre frontal cortex - the place where we make our decisions, manage impulses, and problem solve. In short, play has been shown to create a faster, more adaptable and better, emotionally regulated brain.
That’s the science bit… So why do we play?
We play in order to connect with the world of our thoughts and the world of “reality” around us. For a child, the world of play offers an imaginative lens through which to interact with the world and make sense of relationships and life events. It offers them a sense of mastery and control when in “real life” they cannot achieve this.
In the imaginative world of the 2-3 year old, they can try out being a policeman, a shopkeeper, a princess, a witch, a king… any number of roles that in their real world, they could not be. This offers a child the opportunity to feel powerful, to feel vulnerable, to show anger, to feel magical, to be cruel, and to be friendly. This may not sound like much or, in the cases of more negative emotion, something we don’t want to encourage, but it is an essential learning experience.
It is essential that children get to experiment with these different states and get to learn, in a safe and contained way, how they can manage these strange sensations that bubble up inside of us, that adults call emotions. We can try on new roles, and we can take them off. We can experiment with the states of being that we like, and those that we don’t. We can learn how it might feel to be another, and we can think about how characters might interact with each other. No-one in their right mind would try to explain the concepts of “empathy” , “social hierarchy” or “subtext” to a 4 year old, as it would very likely be met with a blank stare, but watch a group of 4 year olds engaging in imaginative play and you will see every sophisticated nuance of these ideas playing out, without a single explanation required.
Play doesn’t even have to involve another to offer these brain-building, and social learning benefits. In one research paper, “Doll play” was shown to significantly increase prefrontal cortex activity, regardless of whether the child played alone with the doll or with another. This research made the important point that, for children who may struggle with social interactions, doll play or imaginative play involving “pretend characters” can help them practice social situations - it can offer a script and a chance to try out new things. In other words, if you have a child who struggles in big groups or with others, give them figure toys and allow them to interact, engage and practice.
Childhood brings with it many strange and difficult events for a little soul - new siblings, new playgroups, new houses and maybe more difficult, adverse events such as bereavement, divorce or trauma. One of the things I am most passionate about in my work is the healing power of creative expression and the imagination - I have seen in my own therapeutic work and in the research of others, the incredible power of the brain to develop beautiful and creative coping mechanisms for even the most terrible of traumas. The brain is a magical thing, and it never ceases to amaze me what it can overcome.
So, we know now that play helps brain circuitry and it offers emotional projections, as well as confidence building, but what about those children who have vivid imaginations and engage confidently with others? Does play help them? Absolutely it does - because imaginative play helps the assertive child learn the art of compromise. How often do we, as parents, start an imaginative game with an under 5 year old only to be told, “You are doing it wrong,” or, “You are supposed to say this”? Whilst this is frustrating for the parent, and one of the biggest reasons parents tell me they don’t like to play ‘make believe things’- it’s actually one of imaginative play’s biggest gifts. This is a real life example for the child of ‘power vs control’ - I want the game to go like this, because that’s how it goes in my imagination, but I have to learn that the other person’s imagination is not the same as my own and they want to do something different… so we will have to compromise. That’s a huge amount of social learning for a little person! In that one interaction they have had to consider the emotional state of another, regulate their own, and agree to collaborate for the greater good, and still try to find enjoyment from it.
No one needs to give any modern day parent a lecture on the evils of the tablet screen, or the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, and not every parent has the time or resources to play for hours on end creating elaborate fairy-tale and mythical structures with their children. You don’t have to.
But what you might have to do, is allow them to be “bored”.
Children are hardwired to find play in anything, and whilst of course they may not like it if you turn off the TV and tell them to ‘go play with your toys’, they may discover in that moment of boredom and non-stimulation, a space where the imagination steps in. In this imagination space there is so much joy, learning, and resilience-building to be found… so much. In fact, if we as adults found more time to “go play with our toys,” perhaps the world would be a more empathetic, creative and magical place.
Alison McClymont is a leading child psychotherapist with over a decade’s worth of experience at the forefront of the industry. She is the author of children’s book ‘Wilbur’s Memory Box.’ Keep up-to-date with Alison on Instagram @alisonmcclymont.