Why play works

The Toy Industry Association is on a mission with its new Genius of Play campaign, which strives to educate parents, teachers and toy industry execs about the importance of play. And over the past two weeks, blogger Wendy Smolen dug into what experts in the field have to say about the value of letting loose.
September 2, 2015

Jean Piaget told us that play is a child’s work. And he certainly had his valid reasons. But play as an adult is seen differently. Many of us — even those who create entertaining products for kids — often view play as a frivolous activity, fun time as opposed to serious stuff. The Toy Industry Association has a mission to change that perception. The Genius of Play campaign educates and inspires parents, teachers and members of the toy industry about the importance of play, both in our kids’ lives and our own. Yes, we know play is fun. But it’s also essential.

In the past two weeks, I’ve spoken to a diverse mix of experts on play and parenting, culling their knowledge on the importance of play, as well as the importance of playing with your child. Again and again I heard: Play is the consummate parent-child connector. Play is the ultimate happy place.

The full interviews will soon be available on the GOP website, but for those who can’t wait. Here are some memorable takeaways.

Judy Ellis, Chair, FIT Toy Design Department, reminded us that play is not only the way kids learn, it’s also a way that parents can learn about their children. Discovering what toys and activities pique a child’s interest and watching how they engage can reveal aspects of your child much the way a good book slowly unfolds its plot. Play not only tells you about your child’s strengths and interests, it also exposes fears and fantasies.

Nancy Schulman, head of the Early Learning Center at Avenues The World School, sees play as a way to teach resilience by creating challenges within a child’s reach. Think of how children play on climbing bars, placing one hand over the next to get across the span. Kids do it again and again until they succeed. They fall, and get right back up to try again. Play lets you fail, without feeling like a failure. In today’s “fail fast” entrepreneurial world, learning resilience can never come too early.

Stephan Gass, president, The Gass Company, discusses how play teaches values, such as honesty, fairness, teamwork, respect, following rules, and sharing. We all know that just telling a kid to do something often doesn’t stick. But when presented in context, which is what play provides, a child learns and understands the reasoning, and repercussions, behind an idea. Benjamin Franklin (not one of the experts I interviewed) said: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Play engages.

Dana Points, editor-in-chief, Parents magazine and American Baby, reminded us that play can happen anytime. For today’s busy parents, finding time to spend with their child is key. Everyday events — walking to school, making dinner, running an errand — are all opportunities to be playful. Quality time is more important than quantity. Distractions (ahem, devices), too often take away from the quality.

Angela Santomero, chief creative officer, Out of the Blue Enterprises, and co-creator or Blue’s Clues, advocates the “pause.” She calls it the secret sauce in the shows she creates. Pausing after you ask a question or pose a problem gives kids a chance to reflect and respond. While not actually “play,” it’s a “playful” way to engage kids in a process — be it a television show, a game, or an everyday conversation.

Alison Bryant, co-CEO and chief play officer, PlayScience, emphasizes that parents need play, too. De-stressing, stimulating creativity, connecting with the outside world, and learning new things in an engaging way are proven benefits of play. We expect children to play, but adults can reap these benefits too! We need to stop thinking of play as the opposite of work, and give ourselves permission to “act like a kid” again.

The Genius of Play campaign asks each of us to take a Play Pledge by committing to play with kids a certain number of hours per week. Their goal is to guarantee one million hours of pure fun (and beneficial ) play this year. Uh oh, it sounds like a task. But trust me, it’s not work….it’s play.

Hear more about the benefits of play at Sandbox West in LA, October 12 and 13. Register here.

Email me when you’ve taken the pledge at

About The Author


Brand Menu