Understanding the Complex Simplicities of Play

  1. Updates

Play is a behavior that is natural and has existed for thousands of years and across species. It combines a set of made-up rules or norms and a willingness to explore.

Researchers, scientists, and doctors have studied the effects of play on kids–and adults–and understand that this natural behavior has tremendous benefits. As the American Academy of Pediatrics notes, “Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth,” while it also “offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.”

This is true both with free play and with organized play where there are common goals and agreed upon rules.

Let’s explore an example of how play can improve your life. Playing catch, for example, sounds simple but can have tremendous benefits.

coach and student playing catch, high fivePhysical: Understanding physical boundaries and spatial awareness while developing motor skills like hand-eye coordination.

Social: Communicating with another person, verbally and non-verbally, while working toward a shared goal.

Emotional: Practicing trusting another person, sharing a value with them, and regulating emotions when you are both successful and unsuccessful.

A game of catch, like many other games, offers immediate benefits for the participants. It can help people discover the world around them and navigate new challenges in a safe way, physically and emotionally. It also offers long-term benefits. In this example, both participants could experience increased confidence, relationship development with the other person, and improved communication skills.


The Playworks vision is that one day every kid will get to benefit from playing every day. If playing is so simple and provides these immediate benefits, what are some barriers to this vision becoming a reality?

When play is seen as frivolous, people don’t create or empower kids to utilize time, space, and energy for play.

Play must be experienced and valued for its tremendous benefits. When adults, older children, and peers value play both for the sake of the activity itself and for the benefits, positive play practices can be incorporated into daily rituals and kids will develop additional skills.

“When children feel supported by the adults in their environment, they also gain a greater sense of their own creativity and belonging in the world around them.”
– Elizabeth Cushing, Playworks CEO
Kids require emotional and physical safety in order to play.

Children are complex people. What kids experience in their daily lives, for example community violence or fears of bullying, may impact their willingness and abilities to engage in play. Shy kids also might see play as scary and intimidating.

“In addition to its physical benefits, safe and healthy play also provides children with opportunities to develop their social and emotional well-being. Positive interactions with their peers and caring adults can build a foundation for empathy and emotional regulation later in life.” – Jennette Claassen, Director of Evaluations, Playworks 

To create physically and emotionally safe play spaces, we must consider a child’s whole experience and support their ability to regulate their emotions coming into, during, and immediately after playing. It also includes being intentional about the boundaries and equipment used in play spaces to reduce the potential for physical harm.

Over the past 25 years, we’ve helped thousands of children and the adults supporting them see that any space can become a safe and inviting play space, many games can be played without equipment being required, all while decreasing the potential of children hurting themselves during playtime. We’ve also embraced ways in which shy children can be invited into opportunities to play in a way that feels emotionally safe for them.

“Better recess creates better learning. Happier children learn better.” – Victoria Grau, Recess Supervisor, John Garvy Elementary School, Chicago, IL
Communities don’t always empower children to engage in inclusive play spaces.

Communities that create and promote a sense of belonging empower children to engage in play. Playtime should not be a reward that can be revoked, it should be seen as a benefit for children to enjoy regularly. All kids should be able to choose how they play, and feel welcomed to do so within their community. Youth peers and adults can role model behavior as members of the community to make sure everyone is invited into games and modify games to fit the needs of the community.

“By tackling empathy at recess, we aren’t just hoping that kids will practice it. We know they do, because we see the difference.” – Matthew Harris, Principal, John F. Kennedy Elementary School

Take this example:

kids playing catch

Playworks Coach Mike created an inclusive space for play last fall when he noticed one of his kindergartener students, Cayden, walking around by himself at playtime. After spending time with Cayden, Coach Mike learned that he was not getting invited to join games because he had not learned how to throw or catch a ball. So, for a few minutes at the beginning of each recess, they would throw and catch a football across the playground. It didn’t take long for other students to take notice. Cayden’s classmates became very invested in his success and began to cheer him on or join in.


It will take a combination of safe and healthy play practices, spaces, and communities to ensure that every kid can reap the physical, social, and emotional benefits from playing every day. This can happen in our lifetime.

What will it take to do so? We believe it will take an increase in the number of engaged adults, dedicated partners, and sharing of best practices to scale this impact. YOU can help every kid benefit from playing every day.

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