FUN: It’s important to child development in more ways than you think

by John Hoffman

It always sticks in my craw a little bit when people say, “Play is child’s work.”

I know what they’re trying to get at. Play is a really important part of children’s development. But what bugs me about comparing child’s play to adult work is that, forme, play is the exact opposite of work. Work is something you do because you have to do it or it needs to be done. Work can be satisfying, even fun at times, but it’s… you know… work. Play is something you do primarily for fun, for enjoyment, to feel happy.

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So while kids do learn through play, I worry sometimes that the idea that play is children’s work may start to detract from the fun. Already, some people act as if children’s play should always be purposeful, or educational. I don’t want kids to play because they should; I want them to play because they want to, because it’s fun. Fun is often seen as frivolous, but it’s not. Obviously, it helps kids be happy, and happiness is good. But in the past year I’ve come to realize that having fun playing does something else that’s really important for children.

It helps them feel safe.

I don’t mean safe from getting hurt. I’m talking about a deep inside feeling of safety
,something that is felt in the body at least as much as it is an idea in the mind. This inner feeling of safety involves our stress system and the more primitive parts of our brain that operate beneath the level of conscious thought. I hope I’m not sounding too intellectual here, but I strongly believe that this kind of safety, originally defined by a great psychologist named Stephen Porges, is the foundation of mental health and a child’s ability to thrive.

Obviously relationships—with Dad, Mom, grandparents, siblings and friends—are a hugepart of what helps children feel safe. In fact, safety is usually felt first in the arms of Dad or Mom. But play and fun are the part of safety that is often ignored.

Here’s an adult example of what I mean. Let’s say you’re going into a room to meet some new people – new neighbours, co-workers or clients, a new boss, or someone that wants to sell you something. We sometimes feel a little unsafe in those situations at first: nervous, sweaty palms, dry mouth. Those are all signs that our stress system is working. No problem. It’s normal to be slightly stressed in new social situations. But we don’t want to feel like that for too long, and certainly not all the time. It’s a real drain on our energy and personal resources.

Now imagine that one of these new people cracks a joke that makes you laugh out loud. You feel better right? A little safer. This person has shown that he wants to have fun with you and people feel safe when they’re having fun. Their stress system gets turned off.

I saw this in action recently in a dentist’s office. As I was waiting for my appointment, a hijab-wearing mother and her son walked in, accompanied by an Arabic-speaking interpreter and a white person who appeared to be helping them. It was easy to tell that the woman and boy were from a family of recently arrived Syrian refugees. I tried to imagine how I would have felt at this boy’s age (five or six), going to a medical appointment in a new country where everyone looked different and I didn’t know the language. I’d have been as tense as a cat at guard dog convention.

But this boy immediately walked over to the toy shelf, picked out a puzzle, sat down on the floor and started playing with it. Sure, he was learning something about shapes andhand-eyed coordination. But, more important in this situation, playing with the puzzle helped him feel safe. It turned off his stress alarm in this potentially stressful setting. And, not only did playing help him feel safe, it was also a sign that he was feeling pretty safe here in Canada. Because playing and having fun not only help kids feel safe, it can also be a sign that they are feeling safe.

That’s pretty much what I wanted to say. Having fun helps children feel safe in a way that is very central to their ability to function well: to learn, use the skills they have and feel good about themselves.

Play can be a great asset for dads and kids, because guys are often very comfortable with play. So the fun fathers create for kids (obviously moms do it too) is more deeply important than we sometimes realize. Because it helps kids feel safe. And I sure do want kids feeling safe more often than not.

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