3 surprising reasons why our children want to play

Play has an irreplaceable role in children's development. It is an attempt to learn, express, and communicate. In this article, you will find out the 3 reasons why children play.

3 surprising reasons why our children want to play

"But that's not a train, that's a bed. And beds are for sleeping," I recently heard a mother correct her 2 and a half-year-old, after seeing that he and his sister had moved their toddler beds around their room, pretending they were train cars.

Parents often feel compelled to decide what's play and what's not. For an adult, play has a time and a place. It's not easy to realize that, to a child, play means a lot more than just fun.

Play is the essence of life. It's the only way children's rapidly growing brains can process the huge influx of information. Play is what makes the world digestible.

Play comes in many forms. When adults hear the word play, they often think of toys but play is much more than that. Toys can facilitate play but they are by no means a prerequisite for it.

Play is a form of being; being in the moment with whatever and whoever is at hand. An empty milk carton can facilitate play, a pair of socks, or even just our plain bodies.

All children are wired for play. Our evolutionary roots have evidence for it. Chimpanzees tickle each other's palms, chase and tease another, even play blindman's bluff. They also like to make up after fights through imaginary play, after which they groom each other as a sign of restored friendship.  

Children play as if it's their job. Unlike an adult's understanding of play, it's not a form of leisure or hobby. Play has an irreplaceable role in children's development. It is an attempt to learn, express, and communicate.

In this article, you will find out the 3 main reasons why children turn to play other than just having fun. Let's begin!

For closeness

Play is a great way to build a connection between two individuals regardless of their age. Adults have fun playing board games, card games, and sports but they don't necessarily see it as an opportunity to build a connection with others.

Children, on the other hand, are intentional with play. When children feel the need to be closer to us, they don't necessarily ask for a hug or a kiss. Instead, they invite us over to play.

Any game that we play with our children brings us together but some games, although don't immediately seem so, are actually about building or restoring the connection.

Some simple examples of connection games are peekaboo, hide-and-seek, and tag. Other connection games may involve running away from each other's hug and "losing" the game by receiving a huge cuddle. Following the child's lead is the most straightforward way into closeness games.

Children do not knock on our doors for play every time they need closeness. Instead, they might act aggressive, irritating, or sulky. These behaviors worry parents, compelling them to punish children or leave them be in their "preferred" isolation. Controversially, these are the perfect opportunities to engage in a closeness game.

No matter how offensive the behavior looks, it might be a call for connection. Even hyperactivity or stillness might be signs of isolation. If we succeed in seeing the pain underneath these behaviors, we can reconnect by making ourselves available for play.

For confidence

Children often feel powerless and deprived of freedom of choice in most of life's experiences from having to eat what parents serve to visiting the doctor's office for a shot.

Through experiences like "playing house" and "playing doctor," children create a world in which they hold the power and they can do whatever they want with it. In fact, children aged between 1 and 5 define play as: "doing whatever you choose."

By acting the scenes from real life albeit from the perspective of the power holder, they cope with the feelings related to powerlessness. For instance, they might act as a doctor and give you a shot, feeling more confident when this time you get to be the one to "get hurt." This type of play helps them rebuild confidence.

When children are too afraid to fail, get hurt, or be rejected, they might retreat to their powerlessness role claiming "they can't" or "they don't want to." Sometimes, this powerlessness might show itself in unexpected ways, such as kicking, biting, or hitting others.

Upon reading children's powerlessness cues, parents might make themselves available for a play where children can feel in charge and rebuild confidence. This often requires following the children's lead, but sometimes a soft push towards free play can remove these obstacles too.

For emotional recovery

Children's capacity for emotions is vast. When they are immersed in an emotion, whether it's happiness to sadness, they experience it with great intensity. They, however, cannot use the spoken language to express these emotions yet. Play, therefore, acts as their natural language.

Play is a form of self-expression. When provided with a safe space for self-expression, children play out their concerns. It's a terrific way to discharge energy and heal from hurts. When expressing themselves through play, children don't hold back their feelings; they feel safe.

Play gives access to a child's unverbalized inner world no other communication method can give access to. Through symbolic representation, children can replay an event and move toward an inner resolution.

For example, a child who is afraid of a house break-in can play her worries out through a game in which she takes the precautionary measures to hold her dollhouse safe from the outer world. Once feelings are expressed, they become manageable for the child and visible for the parent to offer guidance.

Going back to the beginning, what might those toddler twins have been expressing when they were pretending to be train conductors? Could it have been that they were yearning for exploring the world after 12+ months of quarantine? Who knows. Sometimes, there is no defined answer. The only way to find out more is to get down to the floor and play.


"Playful Parenting" by Lawrence J. Cohen.

"Play from Birth to Twelve" by Doris Pronin Fromberg, Doris Bergen

Apparent aims to help every parent in the world become an emotional coach for their children. We pack mindful parenting, psychology, and neuroscience insights into a weekly letter and ebooks.