Growing & Learning Through Play

Now that school is back in session, we are back to afternoons of children pouring through our doors. They all receive a healthy snack, and the first thing they want to do is have some free time to play. That’s how we start our day at ICAN – with an hour or so of free play, free choices where youth can do what they want. The power of play is a critical component of childhood development. Play creates opportunities for children to explore, connect, learn and grow. It’s difficult to find a clear-cut definition of play – but the growing consensus is that play is any activity that entails active engagement, resulting in joyful discovery. Free play and exploration provide a means to allow children to learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, figure out what interests them and how to pursue those interests. It helps them develop their own “sense of self” – promoting the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function (the process of learning, rather than the content) and a prosocial brain.

Play can also be integrated into structured group activities and a learning environment. Play supports the formation of the safe, stable, and nurturing relationships youth develop with caregivers. This is incredibly important here at ICAN. Many of our youth come from unstable home environments and it is critical that our staff connect with youth and make sure that they are seen as trusted, supportive roles in that child’s life. Play is a great way to make those connections. All of our staff have been trained by Playworks, a partner organization that focuses solely on the power of play. Their games and activities are inclusive, simple and fun. Our staff facilitate games with the youth that incorporate respect and inclusion, fostering a healthy community through play. Staff even use the “play” tools in getting the kids attention and transitioning from one activity to another. These tools can easily be used in the home. Simple, structured, fun instructions get youths’ attention and keep them focused. An example would be “when I say ‘yellow’ you are going to stand up, touch your toes, turn in a circle, touch something yellow and then line up at the door.” The staff member would then have the whole group repeat the “game” or “instructions” out loud. Youth become engaged in the activity, pay attention and get moving to the next activity in a fun way. The games our staff have learned from Playworks are also a great tool out on the playground as a way to include all youth, especially the ones that are having trouble fitting in, creating an inclusive environment. ICAN kids come from many different schools, so it’s an excellent way for them to get to know each other. Youth are also taught how to solve their own disputes – “rock, paper, scissors” is an easy way for youth to solve an issue quickly and on their own. It is a tool we use all the time.

Youth have become so overwhelming busy with competitive activities and increased pressure to perform academically, increasing their level of stress. Free play improves self-regulation, problem solving and mental flexibility – which aides youth in their academic endeavors. Play also decreases stress – not only for kids, but their parents as well. Studies have show that the mutual joy and emotional connection parents and kids experience through play downregulates the body’s stress response. If you are interested in some games that increase executive function, click here for a great resource from Harvard University. Playworks also makes available their games and tools on their website for groups of all sizes.

Shelby Pedersen
CEO, ICAN: Positive Programs for Youth


The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children

Play and the Child’s Sense of Self

The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders

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