The Power of Play: How Play Helps Kids Heal and Grow

A young child holding an umbrella jumps in a rain puddle.

“Play is what makes kids, kids. It’s what they do,” says human play researcher and psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Alison Gopnik. Yet each decade, society has continued to edge play out of the regular rhythm of life for children and families, replacing that play with busyness, distraction, and isolation. Families have gradually traded leisure time spent together playing board games, card games, or other family play for countless hours of show binges and social media. At school, recess times continue to decrease to accommodate more instruction aligned with target scores on standardized tests.

The Decline of Play and Its Impact

Alarming Statistics

According to a June 2023 article in US News and World Report, about 1 in every 7 American kids between the ages of 5 and 17 “underwent some form of mental health treatment in 2021, the latest year for which statistics are available.”

A Crucial Question

What if part of the problem is that kids simply need to play more? 

The Healing Power of Play

The past few years have been tough on millions of children. The good news is that play has amazing power to heal kids exposed to trauma, and even protect them from long-term damage from toxic stress. According to a Newsweek article, researchers have found that “play was so important that doctors should be able to prescribe it. ‘When play and safe, stable, nurturing relationships are missing in a child’s life, toxic stress can disrupt the development of executive function and the learning of prosocial behavior,’ they wrote in The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. ‘In the presence of childhood adversity, play becomes even more important.’”

Play Therapy: A Path to Healing

In her TEDx talk, Paris Goodyear-Brown, MSSW, LCSW, RPTS, explains that play has the power to heal trauma, empowering children to communicate their unsayable stories—using play to communicate what their vocabulary cannot. Play therapy uses the creative process to help children invite safe people into their deepest pain. With dolls, puppets, role play, paint, clay, musical instruments, sandboxes, and other types of play, children are given the tools they need to convey images that “evoke strong emotions but will reveal the amazing ability of children to tell us what happened and play their way to healing.” 

Play Therapy at Home: A Guide for Parents

The South Boulder Counseling Center shared their favorite ways to help parents start exploring the healing power of play with their kids. Here are the highlights of their suggestions, which are especially helpful if parent-child rapport is already strong:

  1. Get in the right state of mind. Loosen up—permit yourself to get messy, look silly, and make mistakes. Forget expectations of breakthroughs and unearthing epiphanies. Let yourself enjoy playing with your kids simply for the experience of it. It will do you some good, too.
  2. Storytelling play: Kids love sharing their stories, often verbalizing even their most painful, frightening, surprising experiences. The opportunity for a child to tell and retell a tough story helps them mentally mark the memory as “processed.” This storytelling can be expressed verbally, with music, drawing/painting, clay, or cartoons. (Note: If the child has experienced severe trauma, get guidance from a therapist before trying this activity.)
  3. Role play: Role play is elevated storytelling, using costumes, puppets, action figures, dolls, and best of all—the option of changing the way the story ends! Role play can give families a chance to begin together in an uncomfortable scenario or a difficult memory, but everyone can give each other the chance to create different, better responses, and better endings. The goal is to help children see that one experience ending badly does not mean all similar experiences need to end that way. 
  4. Sensory play: This kind of play is many kids’ happiest of happy places. Squishing Play-Doh or slime between fingers, slogging through mud, sifting sand or rice, splashing water, or blowing bubbles. The messier, the better! Why? Because sensory play is about the experience itself. It’s about being in the moment, completely free to explore.

It might seem too simple to work, but the wonderful thing about play is that everyone loses nothing by giving it a try. After all, “play is what makes kids, kids.” Better yet, it can help everyone in the family begin to be present in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.

About TLC

The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC) is a social enterprise company serving the Greater Philadelphia Area. Among its five divisions, TLC offers School-based Staffing Solutions, Mobile Coaching and Counseling, and Heather’s Hope: A Center for Victims of Crime. These major programs are united under TLC’s mission to promote positive choices and cultivate meaningful connections through education, counseling, coaching, and consulting.

About the Author

MaryJo Burchard (Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership) is co-founder and principal of Concord Solutions, a Virginia-based consultancy firm focused on helping leaders and organizations thrive while facing major disruption. Concord Solutions offers consulting, coaching, training, research, and keynote speaking surrounding trauma-informed leadership and assessing and building change readiness, trust, and belonging.

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