Why Play?
By Reisa Schwartzman, President of Griddly Games
Marni Segal, Expressive Arts Therapist

“Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.” ― Jean Piaget

Vancouver, BC – (December 23, 2014) – At a recent toy show in Chicago, I had the opportunity to meet with many educators to discuss games and play in general. What was exciting to hear was that a local school district had recently removed an hour of computers and replaced the time slot with PLAY. Why has play become such a hot topic? Does play offer our children something they can only gain from experiential play? The importance of play in children’s lives is well documented. As children grow and change, play develops with them according to a developmental sequence. Children’s cognitive skills are enhanced. Through play children learn about concepts, how to group and classify objects, how to make sense of things and events, and how to solve problems. Play often involves trial and error, and problem-solving tasks. Play requires a child to make choices, direct activities, and make plans to reach a goal.

Children develop motor skills. Through play, children develop control and coordination of muscles that are needed to walk, kick, eat or write. Gross motor skills, fine motor and manipulation skills are developed thru different kinds of play. When throwing and catching a ball, children are practicing hand-eye coordination and their ability to grasp. When children kick a ball across the room, they are practicing coordination and developing large muscle control, tone and flexibility.

During play, children also increase their social competence and emotional maturity. Smilansky and Shefatya (1990) contend that school success largely depends on children’s ability to interact positively with their peers and adults. Play is vital to children’s social development. Play develops imagination and creativity and gives children practice in social skills. As children learn about themselves and the world, they acquire self-confidence, self-reliance and self-expression. Play supports emotional development by providing a way to express and cope with feelings. Pretend play helps children express feelings. In free play, children put themselves into both physically and socially challenging situations and learn to control the emotions that arise from these stressors.

In addition to expressing feelings, children also learn to cope with their feelings as they act out being angry, sad, or worried in a situation they control. Pretend play allows them to think out loud about experiences charged with both pleasant and unpleasant feelings. Older children learn valuable emotional skills, such as increasingly realistic self-perceptions, the ability to manage their emotions, and self-control that improves over time through games and inventions. As older children engage in spontaneous and structured play activities, they come to see themselves as good in some areas and less good in others. These opportunities to monitor and discriminate among feelings and emotions contribute to children’s beliefs about their own capacity. Social play is a natural means of making friends and learning to treat one another fairly.

Play can also be an anti-stress agent for parents. When they play, they can be creative and original with their children. It is also easier on children when play is part of their daily lives. For an example rather than being told to wash their hands all the time, parents can engage by saying they should try the magic bar that will erase all the dirt on their hands?”

Play is an occupation that enhances our quality of life. Play and an attitude of playfulness can make everyone’s life more interesting and enjoyable.

Most importantly, play is a source of happiness.

So what happens if there is a decline of Play?

“If we stop playing … our behavior becomes fixed. We are not interested in new and different things. We find fewer opportunities to take pleasure in the world around us. When we stop playing, we start dying.” – Stuart Brown

An article in the American Journal of Play details not only how much children’s play time has declined, but how this lack of play affects emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self-control.

The loss of play time is a double whammy: taking away the joys of free play and replacing them with emotionally stressful activities. As a society, the conclusion that to protect children from danger and to educate them, we must deprive them of the very activity that makes them happiest and place them for more hours in settings where they are more or less continually directed and evaluated by adults, setting almost designed to produce anxiety and depression.

Studies have shown that there has been a significant increase in anxiety and depression from 1950 to present day in teens and young adults. One showed that five to eight times as many children and college students reported clinically significant depression or anxiety than 50 years ago and another documented a similar trend in the fourteen- to sixteen-year-old age group between 1948 and 1989.

The realization that the major role that free play can take in the development of emotionally healthy children and adults, help us to reassess the priorities for children’s lives. Making small changes — such as openings in the schedule, backing off from quite so many supervised activities, and allowing more free play in the playground would start the pendulum returning to the direction of free, imaginative, kid-directed play.

How can play be used to make change?

Expressive Arts Therapy (EXA) uses various modalities (music, play, visual art, movement etc) as a means of expression and therapy, often starting with one and then moving to another as the play unfolds. What underlies all of these modalities is the engagement with our imagination.

How can the use of EXA be a therapeutic tool for children with social, emotional or cognitive needs?

In order to really understand the work of an Expressive Arts therapist we have to understand the basic philosophy behind it. We, as human beings, don’t just react to circumstances that “happen” to us, we respond to our environment and the environment responds to us. It’s a dance through life. A back and forth, call and response. We’re constantly changing the world around us and in turn, being changed by it.

I look at my family and see not just how we affect the kids but how the little ones have really shaped us individually and as a family. My 2 year old nephew, while running through the living room, decides the pillows are the seats of an airplane and demands that we all get on board- the plane is leaving for Tanzania! There we all are- my sisters, brother-in-laws and parents sitting on pillows on the floor looking out the windows of the airplane as we call out what animals we see below. The power of the imagination to transform and shape our lives is palpable. Psychologist James Hilman says “the quality of a life is the function of the extent of its imaginative capacity.”

Since children live in the world of their imagination a majority of the time, the therapeutic work we do with them is entering into their play. Children don’t have the language or capacity to talk about their “challenges” so art becomes their means of communicating. How they treat their creation, how they might talk to it, or what they choose to do with it when they are done are all ways of communicating. After a year of work at a school with a 7 year old boy, on our final day he wanted me to keep a very special character that he played with almost every session. Winnicot’s Attachment Theory talks about stages of development and in particular the transitional stage when the child individualizes himself from mom. The Transitional Object helps to wean the child off of mamma; eg a blankie. In Expressive Arts Therapy, art can be used as a transitional object, helping the child to cope with difficult situations or transitions.

As we know from many well-documented studies, most of therapy is effective due, to a large degree, to the therapeutic relationship formed between client and therapist. For a child to be seen and heard on their level through play is no different. Traditional play therapists will narrate the child’s play so the child feels “seen”, and will use reflective words to describe how they might be feeling: “Oh, you are trying so hard to bury that guy in the sand.”

Other contributing factors involve setting up the right environment so the child has an optimal play experience. Too many choices can be too overwhelming and cause the child to freeze. For example, taking the child into a music room full of instruments and telling them to “play” as they’d like. Restrictions are important. But too many can be too constricting. It’s important to find the right balance to create a feeling of freedom without being overwhelming. In choosing activities we must also consider the behaviour of the child. If there have been issues of “acting out” in class, a quieter, more focused activity would be a better choice than something that is energetic. And conversely, if a child needs encouragement to play, always start where they are and work very slowly towards expansion.

And what of play in adults?

The importance of play in children has been well documented. According to Stuart Brown, researcher on Play, our brains don’t stop evolving after our twenties. “In an individual who is well-adjusted and safe, play very likely continues to prompt continued neurogenesis throughout our long lives”. In expressive arts therapy, work with adults requires a frame because we are more imbedded in the world of reality. We need to give ourselves permission to consciously step into the world of our imaginations and play. The discipline of the arts is used to distance oneself from the story we already know about ourselves or beliefs we have about our lives/situations/futures. Essentially, we are taking ourselves, or our egos, out of the equation when we engage in this type of therapeutic work. It’s a little more work for adults to step in to it, but once they do it can be hugely transformative.

Authentic play comes from deep down inside us. It’s not formed or motivated solely by others. Real play interacts with and involves the outside world, but it fundamentally expresses the needs and desires of the player. It emerges from the imaginative force within. That’s part of the adaptive power of play: with a pinch of pleasure, it integrates our deep physiological, emotional, and cognitive capacities. And quite without knowing it, we grow. — Stuart Brown

About Marni Segal: Marni Segal is a recent graduate of a Masters in Expressive Arts Therapy from the European Graduate School in Switzerland. She has spent the past 15 years working in non-scripted television as a director, producer and story-editor. Creativity is her drive and play her passion. She looks forward to developing a career working with kids using play as a means of therapy. Marni lives in Vancouver, BC Canada with her puppy Milly who reminds her to play every day!

About Griddly Games: Griddly Games are games that get you going. The company, based in Richmond, near Vancouver, British Columbia, creates award-winning party and board games that deliver innovative, engaging fun that brings people together. Founded in 2007 by Reisa Schwartzman, a mother of three boys, who took it upon herself to deliver wholesome family fun that multiple ages could enjoy at once, Griddly Games offers products that inspire laughter and fun, while promoting an active and healthy lifestyle. Griddly Games instill a strict company philosophy to encourage social interaction, learning, strategy and challenges that anyone (from across the grid) can enjoy. To discover more about Griddly Games, visit www.griddlygames.com and get all of the most up-to-date, immediate information by interacting with the company on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube.