“Let’s come down to play” is a phrase that many of us have uttered countless times throughout our childhood. Today, fewer and fewer children repeat it for fewer and fewer years of their lives: according to some studies, children play less than before –an hour and a half a day– and stop playing with traditional toys much earlier. In the cited study, parents say that, from 7-9 years old, many prefer electronic devices.
The appearance of these devices, life in big cities where going out for outdoor activities feels less autonomous and safe, long school days with extracurricular classes. In reality, there are several factors that may be behind this trend. But, beyond its causes, what consequences can it have?
The importance of play for children
For years, now we have known about the importance of children’s play due to its contribution to development and learning. Some investigations carried out in the US warn of the connection between the decrease in time dedicated to free play and the increase in anxiety and depression in children and adolescents.
The game has been present in all cultures and times as evidenced by the archaeological remains of some toys. Human hatchlings go through an extensive stage of biological immaturity that makes them dependent on adults for their survival, and during this stage they spend much of their time playing. Their immaturity allows them to take advantage of the game, through which they can rehearse behaviors, simulate situations, practice behaviors, learn to control their attention and emotions as well as elements of the social context to gradually incorporate them into the adult world.
In short, these children’s activities contribute positively to human development in all its dimensions:
Physics- Stimulating the evolution of the nervous system
Psychomotor- Promoting balance and muscle control
Cognitive- Developing thinking and creativity
Social- Enabling contact with peers and learning norms of behavior
Affective-emotional- Seeking pleasure, psychological balance or self-control
Learning to live
There are multiple human behaviors that we include under the label of gambling, hence its complexity and the difficulty of defining and categorizing it. As a result of the diversity of approaches and conceptual frameworks from which the investigations have been raised, it is not surprising to find that for each area of child development there is a form of play.
However, they are usually classified into 5 large types: physical play, with objects, symbolic, simulation or socio-dramatic, and rules.
• Physical play includes active play with activities such as jumping, climbing, playing ball, etc., which begin to develop from the second year of life, along with fine motor activities such as cutting or coloring, and playing rough, typical of the preschool stage, which is performed with others and includes struggling, kicking and fighting through which children learn to control their aggressiveness. These games help not only motor and sensory development, but also foster the ability to establish attachment bonds and develop understanding of emotional and social skills.
• Play with objects begins in the first few months when babies are able to grasp and hold objects. They start by rubbing objects, hitting them, dropping them… until later they manage to order them, classify them, make constructions with them, etc. These are activities that serve as mechanisms for exploring the world around them.
• Symbolic play, which appears between 2 and 3 years of age, is focused on the use of symbolic systems such as language, reading, drawing or music and favors the development of abilities to reflect on experiences, emotions, etc.
• Pretend or fictional play, in which objects are transformed to represent others (a broom represents a horse, a finger acts as a gun…), appears around the first year and is a way of developing abstract thinking, so it has implications for their future cognitive, social and academic abilities.
• Rule games include everything from outdoor games, such as hide-and-seek or sports activities, to board or electronic games. These games allow developing an understanding of the rules and aspects of social life such as taking turns, sharing or understanding the perspectives of others.
Cities and outdoor activities
In recent decades, and due to the progressive incorporation of a large part of the population into cities, there has been a constant decline in face-to-face, traditional, and outdoor games in favor of structured games, organized sports, and extracurricular activities. For this reason, some research suggests that children play less today than decades ago.
There is also an increase in technology-based games (video games, virtual and augmented reality). As a curious note, despite their detractors, it has been observed that these games provide necessary skills that respond to the characteristics of technological societies (agility in decision-making, problem solving, etc.).
Including play for a lifetime
Regarding its implications for learning, the game is an essential children’s activity that contributes positively and can be used as a pedagogical tool by parents and teachers due to its motivating, fun and pleasant nature. In this line, in educational contexts, game dynamics such as gamification are applied, with the aim of involving students in school tasks, engaging them in learning processes and improving their performance.
Human adults continue to preserve these behaviors that in other species only define infant members. Regardless of age, play plays an important role in people’s lives, being for some a way of training and practicing new skills and behaviors in a safe environment, while for others it is a way of promoting social interaction and connection with others. In general, gaming can have several mental and physical health benefits, such as reducing stress, improving creativity, and problem solving.
Play is necessary to achieve our full human condition, which is why it is rightly recognized by the UN not only as an opportunity but also as a right for children. In short, play is not just an activity for children, but it can be an important part of life for people of all ages. The potentialities of the game are at the base of the development of higher order problem-solving, cognitive and socio-emotional capacities developed by human beings.