The word "play" has become somewhat of a dirty word in our culture; instead of playing, our children must now learn, study, do ballet, soccer, take a second language, pass standardized testing. Each moment must be structured and planned to ensure the best, highest quality experience.

Our children also must be perfectly polite, not offend anyone, and interact with everyone. In all of this, however, we tend to neglect the power of unstructured play. There is a significant amount of learning and brain growth that happens when children of all ages play.

It is through play that children develop the skills associated with social-emotional learning, a concept that has been gaining new ground in the last few years. Social-emotional learning includes a child's ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of himself and others, and to use that knowledge to practice skills necessary for appropriately interacting with others. They learn how to feel, how to control emotions, and how to express those emotions. They learn about friends and foes, friendly and unfriendly behavior, and how to tell the difference.

In addition to these skills, an article in Pediatrics highlights play as essential to the development of creativity, resiliency, and cooperation skills. Higher social emotional skills have also been linked to improved behavior, higher academic performance, and better attitudes about school.

In our schools, there has been a significant focus on data-driven behavioral goals and objectives. Our teachers are asked to design overall goals that all students will meet. Our children are required to pass standardized tests and use much of their learning time to practice passing those tests. Our school psychologists are asked to develop behavior plans at the expense of being able to assist with more effective yet less measureable interventions.

Social-emotional learning can be very hard to measure and teach, because there simply is no one-size-fits-all measurement for success. The rules of emotional expression and social interaction are forever changing. Many of our judgments are made via our evaluation of the situation, which means different correct behaviors for different environments. Play allows children to create those environments to practice their skills in new, creative, imaginative ways. Play allows children to explore their natural reactions and impulses, experiment with their social skills to see if they're met with positive or negative responses, and find ways of solving their own problems.

Without imposed structure from adults, children fail, succeed, and compromise. They make up rules and decide who will do what. They figure out how to allow a fellow student to join the group. They help a peer who feels sad about losing or exclude a child, or be excluded, and see how hurtful that can be. All of these skills are learned and incorporated into future behavior better because they are more meaningful when learned and reinforced naturally. When children are able to figure out the right and wrong way on their own, their brains actually learn better!

This doesn't mean kids should play unsupervised; they still need our guidance, love, and support. Instead of telling them what or how to play, we need to guide our children into finding their own way. Stay tuned next week for my blog on tips to encourage the development of social emotional learning.

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