The Importance of Active Play

Tonya Farraday is a freelance health and parenting writer who works primarily in the pharmaceutical industry. She’s an advocate of healthy lifestyle changes, and writes frequently on addiction as she strongly believes that kids shouldn’t be the victim of passive smoking or similar social ills.

You may think that boys and girls play differently, but in fact they share crucial similarities which parents should definitely make themselves more aware of. Only by comprehending these similarities can parents make informed choices about appropriate toys and activities for their children. Active and imaginary play is as essential to brain development as the correct nutrition. We all know about the benefits of fish oil for kids these days – so why not the benefits of active play?

Different but Similar

Whilst there may seem to be no obvious parallels between playing with football figures and playing with dolls, the social skills involved in both activities are actually very similar. Both require an ability to negotiate, interact and use the imagination to create play narratives which are satisfying for all parties. Without a play narrative games are simply meaningless. Without meaning there is no fun. Therefore, in order to construct a story around a football game with toy figures, or a story about dolls – in any context – children require active thinking skills. Parents should be alive to the possibilities that the toys they provide can offer, in positively influencing both the play experience and their children’s social, emotional and intellectual skills.

Gender Patterning

A large part of play for both boys and girls is gender patterning. We all know it, and some parents may react against it. But every child will instinctively wish to copy, or pattern, their play against the behaviour of the same sex parent. Little boys wish to have close identification with their fathers, often making sports games an obvious choice. This can manifest itself in physical play such in the Little Leagues, or in imaginary play with sports figures acting out the winning touchdown at the Superbowl. For boys and girls who are not particularly physical or confident, this sort of imaginary play is a way of connecting with the world of sport that is fully inclusive.

Girl Power

Sport is increasingly a way for girls to discover the outer limits of their ability, free from the pressure of cultural expectations around appearance and ‘fitting in’. Sporting excellence is a superb quality for girls to aspire to. Sport’s profile within modern culture has been on the rise for the last decade, always peaking around the time of the Olympics or other high profile sporting events. Seeing female athletes compete at the highest level is a great way to raise girls’ expectations of themselves. In the same way that boys can act out scoring the winning touchdown, girls can emulate the triumphs of the Williams sisters in Grand Slam competition. Whilst they may not be able to match their performance in real life, they can share the ups and downs of a game in imaginary play, hopefully experiencing the pleasure of winning, or learning to accept defeat gracefully.

Active Vs Passive Play

For some, the difference between active and passive play is not obvious. What difference does it make whether a child is ‘winning’ a game on a computer screen or in an ‘acting out’ manner in the real world? In fact there is a world of difference. Computer games present a child with pre-loaded play experiences. The play narrative is provided. The child is only required to perform repetitive – if skilled – motor actions in order to ‘win’ a computer game. If they play alongside other children then it could be argued that the play is social. But in active and imaginary play, where they are presented with ‘passive’ toys upon which they are required to invent and impose a play narrative, the cognitive skills required are far greater. The social negotiation skills – fairness, turn taking and co-operation – are initiated, possibly for the first time. The playing field is level. The child brings whatever they have to the game. This sort of play is of the greatest benefit to children by far, and is the basis of most pre-school school activities.

Get Active

The benefits of active and imaginary play are well researched and indisputable. Educators integrate this type of activity into the school curriculum in pre-school all over the US. Learning begins at home and it’s great to let your kids discover the joy of self-directed play narratives for themselves.