It's All About Family Fun

family fun night, family activities, kids activitiesFood?  Shelter?  A vegetable with every meal?  Health insurance?  Maybe you think of these as the basics, the essential ingredients of a healthy childhood in a nurturing family.  But if you look closely at the list, one of the essentials is missing; family fun.  Why does fun deserve to be on the same list as food and shelter?  Research  by  psychologist Peter Gray published in the American Journal of Play suggests that play is an important adaptive survival activity in groups, and has been since the days of early humankind.  “Free play,” he says is particularly important to children, and there are indications that this type of play has dwindled in most children’s lives.

Free play is game or imaginative activity that is freely chosen, age-mixed, and minimally competitive.   It is the kind of play that arises spontaneously when kids gather; the “here we are in the vacant lot with nothing but a piece of string and five bottle caps so what do we do now” kind of play.  Adult organized activities like soccer games or kit-building projects aren’t bad, they just aren’t free play and aren’t the kind of fun that gives children the most benefit.  According to Stuart Brown, a leading expert on play who once studied seriously disturbed people who commit crime, not having the opportunity for free play in childhood is often part of the life story of maladjusted individuals.  Play is a “state of mind,” says Brown, “an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time.”  Get rid of play, and you’ll measure a quickly rising level of stress and negative outcomes.  The move in some schools to replace recess with academic time threatens to chip away at a mid-day free play period that stimulates creativity, learning, and brain functioning, and in the long run will work out poorly for the schools that try it.

Maybe you’ve let family fun slip off of the list because your family budget is looking worse than the national budget, or because stress and time have given you a case of “fun amnesia.”  If that’s the case, then you’ve noticed that dull haze that develops during the day, and those instances where you realize that you can’t remember the last time you laughed out loud.  It’s probably time to inject fun back into your family’s environment.  But where to start?  Maybe trying to remember the kind of free play fun you found when you were growing up.  Did it involve digging figurine-sized tunnels in a vacant lot and filling them with water?  Was there a “craze” that played itself out with the kids in the neighborhood, like a loosely organized, grand masters handball tournament?  Maybe the best afternoon you had involved looking for evidence of a fairy visitation among the bushes in your backyard from the night before, or making yarn ghosts.  Getting the picture?  The best ingredients for a recipe for free play fun involve an attitude of curiosity, some room to explore, and a measure of freedom from adult direction.  This is what Stuart Brown and other researchers have found sets the stage for mind-healthy play.  You may also notice that this type of activity builds on itself naturally, organically, and doesn’t require progression toward an end goal.  Achievement, if present in the activity, is part of the play and not a means to an end.  Why does this kind of play tend to occur outdoors?  Perhaps because there are less restrictions outside of the house.

Are you still having difficulties finding ideas to initiate family fun play?  Try some of these fun-starters, being mindful that once the kids are involved, managing their choices during play needs to be avoided:

  • Set up some toys or figurines around a tree or in strategic places in the yard and ask the kids to show you what the figurines would do if they came to life.
  • Make a paper boat out of paper and tape, put some water in the tub, and ask if the kids can make one.
  • Bring out a ball and make a “rule” about what each person has to do with the ball while walking across the yard.
  • Snow day?  Have a “migloo” building contest, that is, a miniature igloo building contest.
  • Make snow angels, but finish them off by making some pans of colored water with food coloring and “paint” the wings of the angels.

By now, you’ve probably got the picture that once children are given permission to use their imaginations and really trust that they have the freedom to do so, they will come up with some great ideas on their own.  If all of this focus on play doesn’t seem like serious business, consider the following facts about play and the thinking brain described by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D..  It is theorized that play helps stimulate the secretion of BDNF, or Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, a chemical essential for brain cell health.  Play enhances divergent thinking and problem solving, as measured by research that tested children on these types of problems following free play.  We could go on for a few more pages describing research into the benefits of play, but that would keep you from getting out of the chair and out the door with the kids.  Need more inspiration to keep your free play activities happening on a regular basis, take a look at Stuart Brown’s book synthesizing his research in this fascinating area, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul,.

 From the Child Development Institute at:


Play Is the Work of the Child

“Play Is The Work of the Child” Maria Montessori

Play activities are essential to healthy development for children and adolescents. Research shows that 75% of brain development occurs after birth. The activities engaged in by children both stimulate and influence the pattern of the connections made between the nerve cells. This process influences the development of fine and gross motor skills, language, socialization, personal awareness, emotional well-being, creativity, problem solving and learning ability.

The most important role that play can have is to help children to be active, make choices and practice actions to mastery. They should have experience with a wide variety of content (art, music, language, science, math, social relations) because each is important for the development of a complex and integrated brain. Play that links sensori-motor, cognitive, and social-emotional experiences provides an ideal setting from brain development.

According to Montessori, the essential dimensions of play are:

  • Voluntary, enjoyable, purposeful and spontaneous
  • Creativity expanded using problem solving skills, social skills, language skills and physical skills
  • Helps expand on new ideas
  • Helps the child to adapt socially
  • Helps to thwart emotional problems

If play is the work of the child, toys are the tools. Through toys, children learn about their world, themselves, and others. Toys teach children to:

  • Figure out how things work
  • Pick up new ideas
  • Build muscle control and strength
  • Use their imagination
  • Solve problems
  • Learn to cooperate with others

Play content should come from the child’s own imagination and experiences.

Unfortunately, the play experience for today’s child is often quite different from that of their parents.

With the ever expanding influence of electronic media including TV, videos, video games and the internet, child are spending much of their time being passively entertained by or minimally interacting by way of a keyboard or control pad with an electronic device.

Even today’s toys are more often structured by onboard computers that dictate the play experience.  This robs children of unstructured play with other kids as well as individual playtime spent in creative play. Parents need to understand the play needs of their child and provide an environment to meet those needs.



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