How Playtime Boosts Your Child’s EQ
When you watch your child swing from the monkey bars at the playground or race toy cars on the kitchen floor, do you ever say to yourself, “Sheesh, he wastes so much time!”?
Fortunately, the idea that playtime is a waste of a child’s time is an outdated notion. Researchers and parents alike have caught on to the truth that play is valuable, and in fact, vital, to children’s growth and emotional intelligence. However, sometimes we subconsciously devalue playtime by overscheduling our kids or demanding that they sit still for too long. Read on to learn whether or not you are truly valuing your child’s playtime.
This one is a given. When your daughter uses her spoon as an airplane or her stuffed animal as a pet dog, she’s using her imagination. But what is imagination, really, and why is it important to emotional intelligence?
Imagination doesn’t just have to do with make-believe. While we associate imagination with imaginary friends and places, it has a very practical side.
Your child’s ability to predict the outcome of a certain behavior? Imagination. Her ability to understand abstract concepts such as freedom and democracy? Imagination. Even his ability to solve a problem he’s facing, whether bullies at school or a low grade in math—much of that can be attributed to his imagination. Allowing children the time and space to play gives them permission to use their imagination. So no matter how bizarre their make-believe world may seem, encourage it. So many social and emotional skills will stem from that single ability.
When allowed undirected and uninterrupted play time, children have the chance to learn how to interact with others. They learn social and cultural norms—what is and isn’t okay. There is time for teaching through modeling, talking, etc., but what about giving children space to learn through experience?
When children interact with each other through play, they are confronted with different personalities, behaviors, and emotions.
Maybe a playmate ignores them, pushes them, or calls them a name. Or maybe she encourages them, laughs with them, and praises them. In the variety of experiences they encounter during playtime, children have the chance to learn how to speak to others, how to negotiate with others, and when and how to assert themselves.
So what about the times when your child plays alone?
This kind of play still fuels the development of their social skills. Children use their imagination and as they play out different experiences, and this strengthens their ability to empathize. How does my action figure feel when he falls down? How does my hungry dog feel when she finally eats? Based on their own experiences, children guess how others feel and play out those reactions. The ability to assume another’s perspective is a large part of emotional intelligence. It leads to increased sensitivity and helps children understand how their actions affect others.
Have you ever noticed your child pretend that someone is sick or has even died, acting out the emotional experience? Children commonly use play as a way to internalize and understand emotions. This may be hard for adults to understand because when we feel intense emotions, we typically verbalize them. In other words, we like to talk. We talk to our therapist, our friends, or our partner. We aim to express how we feel and receive verbal validation.
Kids are different, though. In his book Play Therapy: the Art of the Relationship, therapist Garry Landreth says:
“Children express themselves more fully and more directly through self-initiated, spontaneous play than they do verbally because they are more comfortable with play.”
Play is a way for children to externalize their internal worlds. It gives them a chance to understand and cope with emotions at a safer distance than being smack in the middle of a situation. Because even though they are little, children experience big emotions.
While having conversations about feelings is important, allow your child space and time to play. They need this developmentally-appropriate opportunity to process their big emotions.
Bottom line? It’s impossible to separate children’s playtime and learning; the two are inexorably and vitally linked.
Research found in Play Therapy: the Art of the Relationship (2012) by Garry L. Landreth, “Supporting Kindergarten Children’s Social and Emotional Development: Examining the Synergetic Role of Environments, Play, and Relationships” by Gill Kirk and Jenny Jay in Journal of Research in Childhood Education (vol. 32, no. 4, 2018, pp. 472–485), and “Principles of Emotional Development and Children’s Pretend Play” by Jeong Yoon Kwon and Thomas D. Yawkey in the International Journal of Early Childhood (vol. 32, no. 1, 2000, pp. 9--13)