Cincy Science: Whatever your age, play on! Local expert says having fun is good for adults & kids

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Albert Einstein once said, “Play is the highest form of research." While the notion seems filled with whimsy, the most influential scientist of the 20th Century may have been on to something. Perhaps engaging in multiple games of Candy Crush won’t ultimately lead to the formula for cold fusion, but the act of play does serve an important purpose in our lives.

“Play is the work of the child.” – Maria Montessori

So how important is play for children?

At Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Division of Child Life and Integrative Care, senior clinical director Sharon McLeod explained the significance of play begins at infancy and continues into adolescence.

“Children give us a lot of messages through their play that they might not be able to verbalize depending on how old they are or how comfortable they are in a setting,” she said. “We definitely need to recognize the power of play in children’s communications.”

In order to help children cope with their healthcare experience, McLeod said they often incorporate play as a tool to foster better communication. She said they encourage the children to role play as a doctors or nurses using puppets or dolls as patients. By allowing children to act out perceptions, she said they’re able to address any concerns or fears.

“So in those types of setting we can learn about misconceptions children might have about what may happen to them in a healthcare setting,” she said.

In addition to play being an outstanding communication tool, McLeod explained play is extremely important for children’s development. She points out, even simple games like peek-a-boo with infants lead to discovery of the permanence of objects. She said the game also dispels fears of separation anxiety, as infants and toddlers learn to cope with the idea of having a parent out of sight. She said as children become older, they learn social skills through play such as first-hand experience on how to share.

“When children don’t have the opportunity to play, there’s definitely research that supports they’re often malnourished and developmentally behind in all their cognitive skills, as well as motor development,” she said.

The non-profit organization KaBoom’s mission is to provide “a great place to play within walking distance of every child in America.” The organization reports that play deficit causes ongoing repercussions including physical, intellectual, social and emotional harm. 

While McLeod encourages play for children, she did express concern for the type of activities considered as recreational. In regards to active play, she said school age children have become far too sedentary due to fascination with technology instead of the playground.

“The fact that play has become so technological is contributing to obesity in childhood because they’re not playing outside,” McLeod said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports childhood obesity doubled during the last 30 years. In 2012, more than a third of the children in America were overweight or obese due to diet, genetic factors, environment and behavior. The CDC encourages one hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week for children to maintain a healthy weight.

Should grownups play?

We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw

The physical, psychological and social benefits of play are evident for children, but do adults also reap the benefits of play? McLeod said absolutely. She explained for adults, most people use the term recreation to describe adult playtime. Adult play not only helps to foster creativity, it provides positive emotional benefits. Just as in children, McLeod points out adults connect socially through recreational activities, whatever those activities may be.

“Fun is defined different ways for different people,” she said. “Fun for some people is being in a bridge tournament or being in a chess club. For other it might be a skiing club or a bicycling club. It’s going to run the gamut, so it could be any hobby from the standpoint that it keeps you in touch with others.”

In "The Importance of Play for Adults," World of Psychology associate editor Margarita Tartakovsky offers up advice from experts on how to rediscover the act of play.

How to play: Tips for grownups

  1. Change how you think about play. Remember that play is important for all aspects of our lives, including creativity and relationships.
  2. Give yourself permission to play every day.
  3. Take a play history. Mine your past for play memories. What did you do as a child that excited you? Did you engage in those activities alone or with others? Or both? How can you recreate that today?
  4. Surround yourself with playful people. It’s important to select friends who are playful – and also play with your loved
    1. ones.
    2. Play with little ones. Playing with kids helps us experience the magic of play through their perspective and relearn how to play.

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