We really send mixed messages to our children, don’t we? As adults, we dismiss the idea of “all work and no play” as boring and uninspired, yet we panic regularly that our kids aren’t “learning” enough when they pull out their building blocks or cuddle their favourite baby dolls.
Guess what? Next time your child wants to dress and undress a Barbie for the next hour, relax and let them enjoy. Better still, remember that they’re negotiating important life skills in these moments - that you might not even be aware of!
Play is not only educational for kids - enhancing a child’s desire to learn and understand a variety of concepts - it’s also incredibly beneficial for children’s mental and social development, especially when it comes to sharpening their emotional intelligence and those highly sought after social skills.
Children benefit from playing with their favourite toys both with another child, a friend or sibling who helps them to communicate their needs, and teaches them that oh-so-difficult yet crucial art of sharing, as well as with an adult, who can help to guide and encourage them as they play.
For children, all play is beneficial - even when they’re playing on their own, as a recent study commissioned by Barbie found. It partnered with psychologists at Cardiff University to explore the benefits of doll’s play in this first-of-its-kind study, and discovered that when children play with dolls, the parts of their brain that lead to developing empathy and social information processing skills are stimulated.
Great news for parents: out of 15,000 surveyed, 6 out of 10 declared they would rather see their children grow up with well-developed social skills over high academic qualifications, according to new research from Barbie.
91% of parents agreed empathy was the key social attribute they wanted their kids to develop, followed by the ability to understand other people’s perspectives and being good at cooperating.
Reading stories to kids, social interactions with others and encouraging a child’s curiosity can all help children develop social skills, as can playing with toys.
Here are just some of the prized social skills your kid can learn from play - so keep that toy box lively.
1. Empathy - thinking about the emotions of others
“Parents always ask me what matters for children’s happiness, mental health and success, and my answer is always empathy. Empathy plays a key role in predicting kids’ well-being, academic success, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction, as well as their ability to have resilience and bounce back from adversity,” writes Dr. Michele Borba, a psychologist and author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All About Me World. Dr. Borba has been working alongside Barbie to develop resources to help kids develop their social processing skills.
“It’s been shown that children who have developed empathy and social skills early in life can have better grades, stay in school longer and make healthier choices overall,” explains Dr Borba. “Empathetic children might also be more likely to stand up for a child being bullied and try to engage and resolve the conflict. Understanding that kids can help develop these skills through playing with dolls like Barbie, is remarkable and a helpful tool for parents.”
With everything going on in the world at the moment, from fears about the global pandemic and having to go through another homeschool lockdown-style scenario to the global reckoning around issues of institutionalised prejudices and racism, children need to be taught empathy from their earliest days.
Play can help teach empathy in varied ways: listening in on your children’s encounters with their toys and dolls can help you tune in to their feelings, worries and interests.
Giving our children toys and books that showcase different experiences - disabilities, different skin tones, various family backgrounds and set-ups that don’t resemble our own - can all help our children learn to empathise with those living varied experiences, in places all around the world. This deeper understanding and interest in others can translate from their playtime into real-world encounters.
2. Diplomacy and conflict resolution
Listening to children play - without adult intervention - is a fascinating exercise (not that parents ever have the time to do it!). Listen to kids playing with friends or siblings: they’ll negotiate, they’ll squabble and they’ll often act out real-world scenarios with their toys, building classrooms out of blocks, typing manically on laptops they’ve just crafted from old cereal boxes or having dolls become medical experts checking for sore throats and coughs.
You don’t need a professional qualification to know that children react to the environment and stressors around them, like homeschool, parents working from home, COVID-19 anxieties, etc. They are manifesting these feelings and worries through their play, so it can be a therapeutic tool that helps them cope with their changing realities.
Similarly, if your child is stressed about something happening in the school playground like bullying, they may struggle to verbalise it. However, they might replicate the behaviours they’re seeing or experiencing through their toys.
Playing with toys, especially with other children involved, will also teach your child the basics of sharing and compromise: you wear this costume first, but I get to push this baby in her buggy while we do it. There is often an unspoken set of rules that the participants in the make believe must adhere to for it to run smoothly - developing that understanding is crucial for kids.
Not only does this help children with conflict resolution in life, it also encourages them to think about cooperation, collaboration and understanding different points of view, as well as boosting their self-regulation abilities. These are skills that serve them well long beyond childhood.
3. Independence and self-discipline
As we learned all too well over lockdown, even the best-intentioned parents can’t spend every waking minute playing with their children. Truth be told, they probably shouldn’t - as there’s plenty kids can glean from playing on their own.
Even when a child is playing on their own, they’re boosting their social and emotional development, indulging their creativity and unleashing their imaginations. They’re also cultivating that critical life skill: an ability to happily exist with themselves, and themselves alone.
Even more crucial? Encouraging kids to embrace their boredom, especially if they see you at home and think you should be playing with them instead of preparing for a client presentation.
While it’s important to ensure that kids have a range of age-appropriate activities to engage with, from books to blocks to baby dolls, it’s also good for them to feel bored once in a while: boredom will ultimately encourage them to think more creatively, and make them more self-sufficient human beings.
4. Developing friendships
Here’s how young kids decide who they’re going to be friends with: 1) their parents hit it off and host regular playdates with each other’s kids so it becomes sort-of inevitable. Or 2) they bond, often over toys, games and other characters they’re obsessing over.
Toys can play a pivotal role in helping children negotiate friendships and playmates, while these play sessions together can teach them to anticipate the needs of others, to share (no one wants to play with the kid who can’t!), to compromise and to be more self-aware. A child quickly learns that antisocial behaviour - pushing, hitting - won’t be tolerated and playtime is over.
The ability to cultivate friendships links back to being empathetic: children who understand empathy can intuit what their friends need, so they can play together collaboratively and enjoyably. In turn, these children are better placed to deal with bullying behaviour.
5. Courage and curiosity
There is something to learn from all sorts of play: a child obsessed by climbing trees and running around is building up their strength and courage, and is likely to challenge themselves physically and mentally by reaching for that higher branch or running farther and faster on their next tour round the park.
Children who prefer indoor play like crafting, building, constructing and taking things apart to see how they work are also fostering skill sets, learning how to think creatively, critically and to use their mathematical prowess.
Which is to say: don’t prioritise one type of play over another, but encourage your child to do whatever takes their fancy, knowing your little one is benefitting no matter how they’re spending the next half hour or several. Also, encourage play that goes beyond a child’s gender: playing with dolls can help little boys hone their nurturing skills, while girls who love constructing will be boosting their STEM abilities, and their confidence.