Simple Really: Play is Beneficial for Children & Families

winter-playBoth children and adults learn through play. This, of course, is not news to those of us in the field of play therapy. What is news is  that we need to improve the quality of play for everyone. Many parents and educators are no longer in touch with children’s need for play due to our accelerated, achievement-oriented culture.

What are the benefits of play?
In neighborhoods without a park or playground the incidence of childhood obesity increases 29% (Health Affairs, KaBOOM! 2010).

1. Play helps children use their imagination.
2. Play helps children learn new words.
3. Children learn about their emotions through play.
4. Play helps developing brains grow.
5. Social skills develop through play.

How can a parent or grandparent encourage play?
Children and adolescents between the ages of eight to 18 spend an average of seven and a half hours in front of the television or computer. (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010)

1. Play with your children or grandchildren and be a role model. Playing together deepens your relationship.
2. Find ways to play that you enjoy as a parent or grandparent and spend time together participating in these activities, playing games, taking part in outings or structured activities.
3. Travel to a variety of playgrounds and parks to play. If you do not have an adequate playground in your area, advocate for a playground to be built with other parents.

What are some ways I can play with my children or grandchildren?
1. Play outdoors together. Take a walk in the neighborhood, a hike in the woods or on the beach. Skip, jump rope, throw a ball, play tag, stomp in the mud, build snow families. For example, a friend of mine in Minnesota built a family of snow hippos!
2. Children can help and play while cleaning up the yard, washing the dog, gardening, washing the car.
3. Indoors, children can play grocery store while helping a parent or grandparent to market, help sweep floors using child-size brooms, help dust, and help care for pets.
4. Pretend-walk through different places: walk through the woods, on a different planet, underwater, on the beach, fly together, and imagine what you see or who shows up in the places you visit.
5. Create your own marching band using oatmeal boxes with lids or other empty containers filled with beans for musical shakers, or pots and pans and wooden spoons for a drum set.

Simple/Low-Cost Toys to Play With Indoors
Only one in five children in the United States live within a half-mile of a park; the deficit is worse in low income neighborhoods. (CDC State Indicator Report on Physical Activity, 2010)

  • Plastic lids for Frisbees
  • Empty boxes or baskets
  • Sock balls
  • Dress up clothes
  • Beach balls
  • Hoola hoops
  • Jump ropes
  • Blocks

Games to play:

  • Dance to music
  • Make up stories under the covers
  • Share your day and night dreams as a family
  • Hopscotch
  • Hide-and-seek in daylight, & in the dark with flashlights

How are you going to play this winter season with your kids?
Remember when you were a kid?—how did you play?
With the leaves off many of our trees and snow on the ground in some places, there are plenty of ways to play. One great way to spend the day playfully is bird watching together and then drawing or creating picture books of the day’s adventure. Both children and adults can dance to music and fly freely about the living room or outdoors in the front yard.

At the park or lying on the living room floor both children and parents can imitate the songs of their favorite birds. A trip to the library will bring a treasure trove of images and stories to share about birds, their habits, and ways to play in and improve our environment.
I encourage you and your children to add to the playful suggestions I have offered and add them to your “play” list. Please comment and send some of your suggestions so I can add them to future posts.


Play Resources:

  • KaBOOM! @
  • The Grass Stain Guru @



Boston, Theresa(Ed). Kauka, Kanani (Ed). (2010 January). Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds: A Kaiser Family Foundation Study. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State Indicator Report on Physical Activity, 2010. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010.

Health|KaBOOM! . (2010, Dec). KaBOOM!.



© Copyright 2010 by Mary Alice Long, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Miven Trageser

    December 13th, 2010 at 1:09 PM

    These are great resources. You might want to add to the list. I first learned of this innovative group from a TED talk.
    Playworks focuses on the loss of recess in many school settings, leading to reduced opportunities for kids to practice social skills, especially conflict resolution.

    “Playworks’ vision is that one day, every child in America will have access to safe, healthy play every day.  Play creates essential opportunities for children to explore their imaginations, to connect with other people and to stretch and grow physically, emotionally and socially.”

    I am also an advocate for a child rearing approach called RIE, which encourages unstructured play and true self-determination starting in infancy. This is very different than the stimulate-your-baby-approach, epitomized by products like Baby Einstein. I hope parents can feel empowered to give their babies and children more unstructured time and not add “have to play with kids” to their list of things to do. The RIE approach is well-articulated at
    I also keep my website up to date with information that advocates the healing power of play.

  • Caroline

    December 13th, 2010 at 6:41 PM

    We used to love building tents with dining room chairs and blankets. That den was a million things in our imagination! I don’t think modern games encourage kids to exercise that mental muscle half as much as they should.

  • lyle

    December 13th, 2010 at 7:20 PM

    Parents should be playing with their kids. True. They were kids themselves once and know perfectly well how to play. Do we really need to spell it out for them like that how to play? Really? I don’t think so. Ten out of ten for stating the obvious LOL.

  • Abigail

    December 13th, 2010 at 8:28 PM

    And I disagree, lyle. Sadly yes, reminders are needed because they may know the mechanics of play but they don’t do it. Adults get too busy and no is an automatic reaction. I can remember how I’d ask my dad to do a small thing like draw with me and he nearly always said no, his nose stuck in the newspaper or something. I don’t think he ever noticed how crestfallen I was. Play is for bonding too. If that has to be spelled out a hundred times for it to sink in, so be it.

  • Wendy

    December 13th, 2010 at 9:16 PM

    I can believe the stats on increased obesity where there’s no park or playground, but heck, it’s not like when I was young and we could go play unsupervised. Parents need to weigh the pros and cons and my kids being out of my sight would be a big con. When they are home I know they are safe.

  • Atherton

    December 13th, 2010 at 11:15 PM

    I loved plating soccer when I was little and when my family mOved to a new neighborhood I was depressed and sad all the time because the planarians have a decent playground and there were Bo neighbors of my age group to play with. Luckily we had to move from that place pretty soon and my problem was solved.

  • Sammi

    December 14th, 2010 at 5:50 AM

    Why even have a child if you are not willing to go out and play? What fun is that? parents are to give guidance, strength, and love, but they are to give the fun stuff too.

  • Mary Alice Long, PhD

    December 14th, 2010 at 11:57 AM

    Thank you all for your comments. Miven, I am familiar with Playworks and grateful for their contributions and advocacy for play. My own children have had recess and lunchtime at school cut or shortened, we need to turn the tide.

    I’d also like to call out for more unstructured play. The current atmosphere of so many structured activities is creating an unhealthy imbalance. Play leads to imagination and creativity and is vital for the health of all. Play is essential for the health of our kids, families, and communities.

  • Ralph

    December 14th, 2010 at 2:40 PM

    Frisbee play indoors with plastic lids is not a good idea. There are too many breakable items like ornaments and too much leaping about trying to catch it. Unless you have a room that’s 1) extremely spacious and 2) doesn’t contain anything you’d yell over if it got broken or 3) you won’t go nuts when someone gets hurt lunging for it, don’t do it. I’m all for physical play but wouldn’t recommend that. Frisbees say on the packaging for outdoor use only for a reason.

  • tamsin

    December 14th, 2010 at 3:31 PM

    We used to play at shopkeepers and customers when I was small. My mom’s pantry was raided for stock. We ran it from the bottom of the stairs and you had to buy something to get up the stairs. A mini toll booth is what it was really LOL. :)

  • Autumn

    December 14th, 2010 at 5:44 PM

    We made little stick figures, chairs, tables and bicycles out of my grandfather’s pipe cleaners. He wasn’t happy when he would reach for one to clean his pipe and we would have used them all. :)

  • Bradley

    December 14th, 2010 at 7:26 PM

    Why do we have to instruct grandparents to play with their grandkids? It’s the most natural thing in the world to do. You’ll not be getting any Best Grandpa or Grandma In the World mugs anytime soon if you don’t know that. Rain or shine, my grandparents played with me. If it was nice we kicked a ball around or played badminton in the yard and in bad weather we’d play cards or read together. They were great.

  • Hannah

    December 15th, 2010 at 5:44 AM

    Playing with your children has a multitude of benefits.
    It establishes very early on a connection with them.
    It helps to battle the rates of obesity that are now being presented at alarming rates in both kids and adults.
    And it gives you a way to communicate with your children that is positive and effective at letting them know the ways to behave with other people and how to get along with others in real life.
    Lots of good life lessons here.

  • Bethe

    December 15th, 2010 at 10:35 AM

    Thanks so much for spreading the word on the importance of play, and for mentioning my site.

    Cheers- Bethe, aka The Grass Stain Guru @balmeras

    “Trying to define play is like trying to define love. You can’t do it. It’s far too big for that.” – Gordon Sturrock

  • Mary Alice Long, PhD

    December 15th, 2010 at 12:08 PM

    Thank you all for your comments. Simple Really–Play and Playing Outdoors is important–Exploring how we play in our communities is important. Many parents and grandparents do not play and would like to know more about how to play for themselves and with their children and grandchildren. Safety issues are a concern for many parents and grandparents both indoors and outside. Adults and children are being asked to “do” more and more, increasing stress and decreasing ease and playful living. Play can be part of every aspect of our lives. We have many choices about how we play as child, adult, elder. There are also many resources to help us all find new ways to incorporate play into our lives and the lives of our families. May of our city, county, state officials and community leaders, educators, artists, parent groups, nonprofits, corporations, and even our Dept of Defense are calling out for more play and creativity. Thank you all for creating a playful dialogue. Lets continue to make playful connections and impact public policy and reverse the trend we see–elimination of recess at school, imbalance of time spent watching TV/vs unstructured or organized play activities, lack of play spaces for all ages, increased rates of obesity and diabetes, and more…We can all make a difference, one play at a time.

  • tasha

    December 15th, 2010 at 2:41 PM

    An excellent article and excellent ideas. Getting back to basics is a good thing!

  • Gwen

    December 15th, 2010 at 4:24 PM

    Ever made tiny dolls out of old fashioned wooden clothes pins? Not the spring kind you see now. These has a flattened ball shape on top and two long wooden prongs. You glued woolen hair to them and used scraps of fabric for clothes. We spent many a rainy day making them. :)

  • Wanderer

    December 15th, 2010 at 6:11 PM

    Imagination has brought mankind through the dark ages
    to its present state of civilization.
    Imagination led Columbus to discover America.
    Imagination led Franklin to discover electricity.
    Imagination has given us the steam engine,
    the telephone the talking-machine, and the automobile,
    for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities.
    – L. Frank Baum

    The seeds sown by imaginative play lay the groundwork for greatness in adulthood. Play is serious business.

  • Mary Alice Long, PhD

    December 16th, 2010 at 9:05 AM

    Thank you so much for the affirmations for play, more ideas for winter play, and Wanderer’s contribution of Baum’s poem. Play, Imagination, and Creativity are all important states of being human that need attention and nurturing to grow. If any of you would like to chat for a few minutes by email or phone about ways to play in your own life please give me a shout. I’d love to continue the playful conversation.

    Want to receive email Play=Peace posts?

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