Learning another language might be beneficial for your toddler, but you have to pay for those classes.
Getting the latest must-have toy might be on the top of your child’s to-do list, but it could set you back £60.
Actually you don’t need to spend any money at all to have a positive impact on your child, simply playing with them at home can be beneficial.
We’re talking imaginary dragons, playing house, or a game of leapfrog.
Play England’s Charter for Children’s Play describes play as: “What children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own way, and for their own reasons.”
Here are eight reasons putting a blanket on your back and pretending to be a superhero will be wondrous for your child:
Play is good for mental health.
Dr Peter Gray, a professor at Boston College, argued in a paper published in the ‘American Journal of Play’ in 2011, that the more play children experience, the more confident they will become.
“In play, children themselves must decide what to do and how, and they must solve their own problems… and thereby develop competence and confidence,” he wrote in his paper published in the ‘American Journal of Play’ in 2011.
“Restoring children’s free play is not only the best gift we could give our children, it is also an essential gift if we want them to grow up to be psychologically healthy and emotionally competent adults.”
Play can boost your child’s brain development.
You might think that getting out the toy box and playing imaginary games with your child is doing little to boost their brain power, but one study proves otherwise.
In 2014, researchers at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, found time spent in the classroom may be less important than time spent playing, in one aspect.
“The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,” said researcher Sergio Pellis.
“And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed.”
The changes in the neurons in the prefrontal cortex of the brain during childhood help wire up the brain’s “control centre”, which has a crucial role in “regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems”, according to Pellis.
Play can improve your child’s behaviour.
Children need time to let off steam and indulge in “free play” (unstructured, voluntary, child-initiated activity) in order to improve their behaviour overall, according to a 2009 analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, published in the journal Pediatrics.
Researchers compared teacher ratings of eight- and nine-year-olds’ behaviour at school, with and without lunch breaks.
The kids who had more than 15 minutes a day of breaks behaved better during academic time.
Play can teach children about other people’s feelings.
Research published in the Early Childhood Education Journal in 2007 found that play teaches children to “play nice”.
Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, a child development psychologist at Temple University said both free play and adult-guided play can help kids develop awareness of other people’s feelings and regulate their own emotions.
“You get to try things out with no consequences,” said Hirsch-Pasek. “Play allows you to wear different hats, to master social rules. That’s huge.”
Play can improve organisational abilities.
A 2014 study from the University of Colorado found that children aged between six and seven who engaged in role play, reading, board games and playing ‘tag’, “demonstrated greater so-called executive function or the ability to organise their time, initiate tasks, and achieve goals without external direction”.
The study authors concluded that these skills built up children’s self reliance and success later in their lives.
As well as benefitting your children, play is also beneficial for adults as well. The main benefit for mums and dads is that it improves your relationship with your child, as these studies below show.
Play helps you maintain a strong bond with your child.
“Play is a cherished part of childhood that offers children important developmental benefits and parents the opportunity to fully engage with their children,” concluded a 2007 study analysis, published in the journal of Paediatrics.
“Parents need to feel supported to not passively accept the media and advertising messages that suggest there are more valuable means of promoting success and happiness in children than the tried, trusted, and traditional methods of play and family togetherness.”
Play increases dads’ “love hormone” levels.
Dads who are emotionally involved and interact with their child experience reduced levels of testosterone and higher levels of vasopressin, a hormone linked to bonding, as well as the maternal stress response.
“There seems to be some kind of fundamental social-neurobiological framework that comes into play when fathers interact with their kids,” said Lee Gettler, an anthropologist at Notre Dame who worked on the study in 2007.
Play improves long-term family wellbeing.
A study in 2013 found that playing video games with your kids (perhaps not “free play”, but still low-cost, at-home play) had a long-term positive impact on the family bond, by improving relationships, enhancing communication skills and create an atmosphere where family members can learn from each other.
“Parents miss a huge opportunity when they walk away from playing video games with their kids,” explained Elisabeth Hayes, assistant research professor.
“Gaming with their children also offers parents countless ways to insert their own teaching moment. Our research is finding that sharing this experience cultivates family bonding, learning and wellbeing.”
How to play with your children
It might seem like an obvious question, but sometimes coming up with ideas on how to “free play” with kids isn’t as easy as you’d think.
Let your kids make suggestions of what to do first, but if they’ve drawn a blank, the NHS Choices website has ideas for different age groups - here are a few of our favourites:
1. Playing with water (for kids of any age): “In the bath, paddling pool or just using the sink or a plastic bowl, use plastic bottles for pouring and squirting each other, plastic tubing, a sponge, a colander, straws, a funnel, spoons and anything else that’s unbreakable.”
2. Sock puppets (for kids 18 months+): “Use socks and envelopes to make hand puppets. Draw faces on them or stick things on to make your own characters. Get the puppets to ‘talk’ to each other, or to you and your child.”
3. Dressing up (for kids two years+): “Collect old hats, bags, gloves, scarves, nighties, lengths of material, tea towels and curtains. Paper plates or cut up cereal packets make good masks. Cut slits for the eyes and attach them to your face with string or elastic.”
4. Texture treasure hunt (for kids with special needs): “Children with a visual impairment will need toys with different textures to explore with their hands and mouth. Have a search around your house.”
5. Junk modelling (for kids 30 months+): “Collect cardboard boxes, cartons, yoghurt pots, milk bottle tops and anything else you can think of. Buy some children’s glue (the type that comes with a brush is easiest to use) and help them to make whatever they like.”
For a load more play ideas, head to the NHS Choices website here.