Play to Win: Why Play is Essential for Raising Successful Humans

Play — exuberant, open, child-driven — may be one of the most under-appreciated resources available to today’s children. Parents worry about flagging test scores, college placement chances, and ensuring their children are “ahead of the curve”. However, many leave this goldmine of future success untapped. Play is so much more than an idyllic, or idle, childhood nicety, left over from simpler and less competitive times. Play is a child’s primary means of learning about the outside world and developing the interior one.


This play-learning correlation is especially visible as children develop language. A parent’s instinct is often that adults must instruct children in this kind of skill. Play distracts from the activity. 


Research shows that kids learn best when they undertake activities natural to them and involving both peers and adults. Self-direction enables children to encounter new skills and challenges them at their own pace to develop self-confidence and curiosity. Furthermore, real-time face-to-face activities are more nourishing to the brain than activities directed by learning aids or technology.


Play meets kids where they are and leads them into the world with joy. No course, gadget, or method is a better set-up for the kind of adult every parent hopes their child can be.


Dr. Patricia Kuhl is a speech-and-language pathologist on the leading edge of researching how we learn to speak, read, and write. According to her research, children under a year of age can already distinguish their own native language. In one study, Dr. Kuhl tested Taiwanese and American infants’ reactions to English and Mandarin speakers. She found that children who heard both languages often learned to distinguish their unique phonemes as quickly as a native speaker, but only through direct contact with a speaker. A video stimulated no development at all. 


Play time has a lot more to offer than language. Children are naturally drawn to dramatic fantasy and role-playing games. Often, they invent these worlds on the fly with little or no outside structure that seems clear to adults. This is another essential brain-building process in childhood.


Through “pretend play“, kids explore the emotional territory of unknown situations they see in the world. They acquire more advanced language as complex ideas drive their communication. Connecting with peers develops ethics, empathy, and a deeper understanding of social rules. 


Rambunctious outdoor running-around tunes their gross motor skills and teaches them about their own bodies. Quiet indoor activities like puzzles, games, and dolls develop fine motor control and cognitive processing. Each of these will be essential for curricular skills later. 


Educational activities may help prepare kids for the school environment.  However, we must recognize play as the true work of young children.