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July is National Parks and Recreation Month, and this year’s theme is “Get Your Play On.”  I think this is a perfect theme.  Parks provide a great place to play, and recreation departments should embrace that and market their parks to their residents and to the public at large.  As a parks and recreation professional, I want people to use our parks.  They are a place to relax, a place to get exercise, a place to explore, a place to enjoy the fresh air, and, most importantly, a place to play.  But is it possible to just “play?”

The word is getting out about play and its benefits.

1. Play provides much needed physical activity and helps children build healthy bodies.  By participating in physical activity and play, children can get valuable time improving their cardiorespiratory system, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and bone strength.  Active play can help children reach the CDC-recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity and help them become physically literate and healthy.

2. Play helps build creativity and imagination.  When children play, objects take on new forms.  A frisbee may become a UFO, pots and pans become a drum set, a log becomes a boat.  These “loose parts” are what makes play great and help children build creativity and imagination.  Children also take on various roles, from firefighter to superhero to baseball player when they play, sometimes all within the same play time!

3. Play advances social skills.  Children playing with building blocks together learn teamwork.  When kids disagree about who will use the green soccer ball or who will be the goalie, they are learning how to settle disagreements and compromise.

The benefits I mentioned about play are generally well-accepted as the cornerstone benefits.  Of course, there are many more — countless more — benefits that I could discuss.  When we talk about the benefits of play, however, most of them are focused on free play.  In my opinion, this type of play gets phased out as we age.  Free play turns into competitive play.

Play turns into having rules, formalized goals, and a point system.  Teams (or individuals) compete against one another to win.   Free play is reduced or eliminated and turns completely into a sport.  Now I’m not saying that sports are bad or that as children get older that they and adults should not participate in sports.  There are a great number of benefits — physically and socially — that children and adults derive from sports participation.

But this competitive way of thinking eliminates “free play.”  It limits the imagination.  It limits creativity.

It is a happy talent to know how to play.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sometimes older children need to slide down a slide, toss a football around, or hop on rocks across a river without an end goal.  Just to do it.  Just to play.  I know it can be hard.  As a golfer, I want to keep score every round; I want to know how well (or poorly) I played.  I crave that number at the end.  But sometimes you get so caught in trying to win, that you forget why you started in the first place.  You forget how to let loose and just play.  There are benefits of play for adults too.  Some mirroring the benefits for children: social interaction, creativity building, and physical activity.  However, some benefits pertain just to adults and older children including stress reduction and improved cognitive function (especially imporant in older adults).

Societal conventions and stereotypes need to be proven false.  Adults and older kids can swing on a swing set, climb across the monkey bars, or build a sandcastle.  It is possible to just play.  We all can “Get Our Play On” this Parks & Recreation Month — and every month.  But in an almost counterintutitive way, as we get older we have to try harder to not try and to just play.

 

Featured Image: Happy Max by makelessnoise   CC BY 2.0