The Social and Emotional Benefits of Play

Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Though we may have varying opinions on or differing interpretations of this statement, I think we can all agree that as a child, an active imagination is something to be treasured. One of my great pleasures in life is watching a child turn an every-day object into something amazing, using nothing but their own imagination. A stick becomes something greater—a wizard’s magic wand, a pirate’s sword, an artist’s paintbrush—without changing forms at all. This is certainly heart-warming to watch, but, as we are learning with play in childhood, there is much more going on than meets the eye!

Of course knowledge—the learning of new things, the development of a child’s mind—is so important. It is not, however, the focus of my post today. I want to share how play is impacting your young one’s mind in a different way and answer the questions-- How does play affect children socially and emotionally? What role does nature play in this process?

The Emotional Benefits

Let’s start with the emotional benefits of play and being in nature. First, imagine yourself in a highly stressful situation, perhaps Chicago rush hour traffic—now replace everything around you with big, blue skies, tall trees, beautiful flowers, birds chirping…feeling relaxed yet? Research says that natural spaces reduce stress in young children and the greater number of plants and greener views have a more significant effect (Wells and Evans 2003). Other emotional benefits are easy to see within minutes of observing a child at play. They are expressing themselves the way they want and enjoying themselves in the process. When children are making their own choices, they are building confidence and focusing on their own wants. Simply put, playing is fun! It’s a great way to release energy and reduce tension that can build up at any age. We try to create a safe space at LEAP for children to take appropriate risks during play. It’s the reason you’ll rarely hear us use the words, “No, stop, or don’t.” We want LEAPers to feel comfortable to try new things and explore natural materials their way. When children have positive experiences in nature, they associate the natural world with happy feelings and begin to establish a healthy, lifelong relationship. 

The Social Benefits

In my last post, I mentioned that being social and engaging with peers isn’t a toddler’s first priority. Two and three year olds are still very egocentric and their most important relationships (outside of their parents) is with themselves. Playing side by side at LEAP is a way to lay the ground work for future social interactions. Children that play together learn cooperation, sharing, how to take turns, what to do in the face of conflict, and how their actions affect others. They learn early leadership skills and begin to better control their impulses. One of the most important characteristics of an environmentally conscious citizen at any age is empathy, a feeling that develops when children begin to understand and share the feelings of others. Eventually toddlers begin to notice their peers more and play with them rather than next to them, often the first step in gaining a childhood friend. I know we’ve all heard the saying, “Two heads are better than one,” and two imaginative minds can work wonders! 

Fall LEAP Pond 046.JPG

When you think about what’s going on in a child’s mind as they sort objects into baskets at the loose parts station or try to balance a block to top of another to make a tall tower, play can seem exhausting! We encourage having fun a LEAP—giggling, outright laughing, even squealing with joy—but it turns out in childhood, having fun means working hard, too! 

--Emily Van Laan