Important Work of Play

Presented by Colleen Daly Martinez, Ph.D., LCSW, Registered Play Therapist – Supervisor ##

Important Work of Play

Play is fun, but it’s not frivolous. Play is a necessary and valuable contributor to children’s development. Unfortunately, in an atmosphere that prioritizes competition and achievement, play can become less of a priority. In this webinar, Dr. Martinez will discuss theories about the purpose of play, types of play, some of the relational, developmental and academic outcomes associated with play, and she will share ideas about how caring adults can encourage and promote play for children of all ages.

Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez is a licensed clinical social worker and a registered play therapist supervisor with 25 years of experience providing clinical services to children and their families. She has worked in hospital, correctional, outpatient mental health, private practice, summer camp, home based and school settings, and she specializes in play therapy and treating traumatized children. She is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Ramapo College of New Jersey. In her private practice, she provides training, supervision and consultation to individuals, agencies, summer camps and schools to ensure that children and their families receive high quality services.

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Hello. My name is Kelley Teabo and I will be your facilitator for this evening, and we’d like to welcome you to our webinar on the Important Work of Play. Before I introduce the speaker for tonight, I am going to cover some housekeeping items with you. All participants are muted, and if you have a question, please type it in your question box and click Send.
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Now, I’m happy to welcome back our speaker, Doctor Colleen Daly Martinez.
Doctor Martinez, did her first webinar with us in 2015 on anxiety and test taking, and we’re happy to have her back for her fourth webinar. This one is on the topic of the importance of play.
Doctor Martinez is a licensed clinical social worker and a registered play therapist.
supervisor, with 25 years experience, Providing clinical services to children and their families.
She has worked in a hospital, a correctional facility, outpatient mental health, private practice, summer camp, home based school settings, and she specializes in play therapy and treating traumatized children.Doctor Martinez is an Assistant Professor Professor of Social Work at Ramapo College of New Jersey and her private practice who provides training supervision and consultation to individuals’ agencies, summer camps and schools to ensure that children are firmly receive high quality services. Doctor Martinez welcome and we look forward to your presentation.
Thank you so much, Kelley. Can you just let me know if you can see my PowerPoint?
OK, I care.
Excellent. Thank you so much to Kelley, and thank you so much to New Jersey Center for Tourette Syndrome and Associated Disorders for having me here tonight. And folks, I’m very grateful that you decided to join us and I hope that you find it useful. I really do look forward to hearing your comments and your questions at the end of our time together, so please do feel free to take notes.
And, and I look forward to hearing from you in a little while. So I am Colleen Martinez and I am here to talk to you about the important work of play.
And I really do think that, um, we tend to look at play as something that’s frivolous as something that is just something that children do to pass the time until they grow up and start being adults.
But, uh, my perspective is that play is something that is vital and necessary and really much more important then, then we generally think, and so I want to talk to you a little bit about my perspective and why I think that’s so.
So let me introduce myself a little bit. So in addition to being a social worker, I’m also a clinician. So I’ve been treating traumatized children their families for more than 25 years and the primary modality that I use to work with those children and families is play therapy.
So the language that I use to help children recover from trauma and to move on with their, their development, is through play. I’ve worked in many different settings, as Kelly has already told you.
I provide supervision to lots of folks who are also treating children and families. I’ve taught probably thousands of students. I am a college professor these days. I treat, I teach undergraduate and graduate students. I am an academic, I.
My whole life has been about learning academically, growing educationally and teaching others and I See, this contribution of play, even in the adults that I teach and work with.
I’m also a mom of a teenager, and I think that that’s particularly relevant these days, because my teenager has been learning remotely for the past year. They have not been in a school building and have not been with their peers in over a year, and I’ve seen the impact of that on that social isolation.
So, I give you this bit of background to let you know that I’m a mental health professional, I’m an academic, I’m somebody who’s teaching college students. I’m a mom. And I really think that play is something that you should value, and should pay a lot of attention to. And I hope that my time with you tonight can help to help you develop some understanding as to how and why play is so important.
I wanted to let you know that I’m not just speaking to you from my own personal experience, or my own intuition or my own clinical experience. I’ve used a number of primary sources to help inform the work that I’m sharing sharing with you tonight.
So there are three major resources that I recommend to you, and one of them is going to be linked at the end of my presentation, is also in the handouts that are already available to you. So, the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a really valuable paper on the importance of play, and that is actually linked, I believe, at the end of my handouts for you. There’s another paper here that you could easily find if you have any library access, which is a review of research on the value of play.
And I’m going to pull out a lot of different information about studies that have been done, and what we’ve learned about how valuable play is in children’s development.
And finally, this book by Peter Gray, I can’t recommend it highly enough, if you’re really passionate about children and their wellness. And if you’re very interested in how children learn, and the importance of freedom and play in children’s lives, I would strongly recommend that you pick up free to learn. It’s a really valuable resource. And hopefully a lot of what he says in the book will be reflected in my conversation with you today and will get you interested enough so that you’ll want to pick it up and read it later.
So, a quick overview of what I plan to do with you tonight. So, first of all, I’m going to talk about some theories about play. I will also talk to you about different types of play.
We’ll go over, as I suggested, some of the research on the benefits of play. And then I’m gonna give you some recommendations for how you can try to incorporate play more in your lives, and in the lives of the children that you care about. I’ll talk to you about how you can incorporate play in general with kids. But then also, specifically focusing a bit on play with teenagers.
And also in a virtual setting, If any of you are professionals who are working with children and youth in a virtual setting, I might have some helpful tips for you on that as well.
And finally, at about 8 20, we will stop for questions and answers And I really do hope that I get to hear from you.
We’d love to get your feedback on your questions.
So, let’s start first, with talking about what I mean by play.
So, this is by no means, an official definition. This is just me kind of sharing with you my thoughts and my ideas. But I want you to get an understanding of my sense of what I mean by flay. Because it’s different than perhaps you might imagine.
So, when I think of play, I think of engagement and activity that is active, and that is intrinsically motivated, and what I mean by that is the child or the young person wants to engage in it.
And they’re doing it on their own, because they are excited about the process, as opposed to play, where we might say, OK, I need you to do this, or I want you to do this, Or maybe team sports play, where, where children are in a group. And they’re told what to do, because it’s a team sport.
When I’m talking about play here, I’m really thinking about that play that the child wants to do, and is enthusiastic about doing on their own. There’s a, there’s a dynamic of active engagement, where the child is really kind of the director and actively involved in the process. There’s joyful discovery, feeling, that excitement of, wow, this worked, or, wow, I was able to do that. Or, hooray, I accomplished something.
Again, I want to highlight the idea that play in in my way of looking at it is voluntary. It’s something that a child wants to do, because it’s enjoyable, not because they’re able to do it. And of course, play should be fun and spontaneous plays always great because spontaneous play is naturally driven and coming from somebody’s soul and not because, again, they’re mandated or directed to do it.
So, there are many different theories about why human children engage in play, and we don’t really know, for sure. But I wanted to share with you some of the ideas of what thinkers in the area have considered in terms of why do human babies and children play?
And there’s quite a few I’m going to highlight.
And I wonder if you could think about these, and think about play that you’ve seen, And does this seem to make sense? Have you seen play for this purpose before? So, the first is this idea of energy release.
So, one theory is that children, of course, when they’re born, are dependent. They don’t take care of their own needs. They have parents right, and caregivers to do that for them. So one theory is that children have a lot of excess energy that they don’t actually need yet, because they’re not caring for themselves. So play is a way to give kids an opportunity to burn off that excess energy, and certainly, this theory makes a whole lot of sense to me, when I see children who have an opportunity to play, and how they feel afterwards, and how they’ve expanded that energy, I think there’s a lot to that idea of energy release.
So another theory is preparation.
So the idea here is that maybe children engage in play, practicing skills that they are going to need for survival and adulthood. And I think that makes a whole lot of sense to have you ever seen the child that slips their tiny little feet into their until that your parents high heeled shoes, right. And they and they toddle around. And they’re making believe that they’re grown, upright or they might pick up a handbag and make believe that there that grownup. Or sometimes they’ll make believe that their cooking.
And so maybe play is giving children an opportunity to practice those things that they’re going to need to do in adulthood.
Another theory, is that play allows children to have a sense of catharsis.
And what we mean by that, is that kids sometimes have bad stuff happen to them, right? They have traumas.
They have scary things that they experience and maybe being able to play those experiences out can help them not to develop less of a sense of fear or overwhelm or those negative feelings that they have. And I wonder if any of you have ever seen a child who has access to a doctor’s kit. And one of the first things that they typically want to do is give shots, make believe, shots to the grownup that’s with them.
Or, sometimes, children will have seen a car accident. And they will actually play out the car accident with their toy cars.
And, certainly, as a trauma therapist, somebody who has helped many children heal from traumatic experiences.
I’ve seen this myself and and genuinely believe in the value of catharsis. The idea that, through playing out this scary or upsetting experience, I can learn to feel less scared.
I can learn to feel less afraid of the incident or the experience. So there are some ideas that the slave may reduce kids sense of vulnerability and fear, because kids can be big in their play, right?
And when kids play, they can navigate and they can manipulate situations if they’ve got a scary monster figure here. And they can be the big, tough kid.
They can, they can decrease their sense of vulnerability and make themselves sit in a role, somebody who can manage their fear.
And so being able to play out maybe roles of feeling scared and not feeling scared anymore, or overcoming fear. That is something that play might give children an opportunity to do.
What are some other theories? So mastery, I think that many of us see this if we just sit and pay attention to children’s play.
So, mastery of objects and mastery of their environment. So we’ve all seen, well, if we’ve been lucky enough to be around babies, right? We’ve seen babies. Learn to grasp and pick up objects, right? And we see them learn to put the objects in their mouth, And we see them eventually learn to stack objects, one on top of another. Now, babies don’t learn to stack blocks, because we teach them to write. They learn to stack blocks, because they are just driven to do that. And so in that process of play, which you might not even think of as play, But in the process of picking up blocks and melting them, and putting them one on top of another, that child is learning how to control their muscles right.
And they’re learning to control their hand and eye co-ordination and that feeling that they get when they finally can, after a number of times of trying step one block on top of another. That gives the child a tremendous sense of accomplishment and mastery that makes kids feel good about themselves. Not because we say, Oh, good job. You did it. I’m so proud of you. They feel good because they’ve done it themselves. They’ve tried something hard, and they’ve accomplished it.
And certainly, the same could be said for social interactions.
So when children play together, it gives them an opportunity to develop social skills.
And I’ll talk to you more about that and will you’ll see some pictures and we’ll have some examples. But so again, another theory about play is that it helps children develop mastery, which of course is so important. We all want to grow up to be people who feel good about what they can do and what they can accomplish. Play might contribute to that.
So play also gives kids exposure exposure to new experiences, new physical and mental activities for dealing with the world.
So one of the things that I wanted to share with you is that when I had worked with Traumatized children, a lot of them had to go to court to testify about really stressful and scary things that had happened to them.
If we, as adults, think about going to court, right? Were intimidated and nervous. Imagine you’re seven years old, and something really bad happened to you, and you were told not to talk about it. Now, you’ve gotta go to court. Can you imagine how scary that would be?
So, one of the things that I had done in my office is I had a toy courtroom.
So, a little teeny tiny judge, and jurors, and jewelry box and courtroom. And this gave kids an opportunity to see what a courtroom might look like. And they were able to move the judge, and put the judge where the judge said, sit. And they were able to take a little doll that represented themselves, and put it where they might sit. And just having an opportunity to play out what it might look like in a courtroom.
Or to be able to talk about how I might feel if I was sitting in that place. That can give kids exposure. That can help them tremendously. So, many of you may have talked learned about or know about, or use social stories. So, social stories are opportunities to expose children to content that maybe we need them to learn, or to prepare them for experiences. And, we basically kind of play through the story of what they may experience or teach them what we hope to see in their behavior.
The same kind of thing is very relevant in play.
When we give kids an opportunity to play out a scenario or or materials that are reminiscent of an experience they’re going to have, it could prepare them for what they will deal with in that situation.
So, a couple more theories, another theory is about regulation.
And what do I mean by regulation?
So regulation, for me, in plain language, I always speak in plain language. Regulation is my own ability to experience stimuli.
That may be stressful or may be overwhelming, but I can experience that stimuli, and I can cope with it, and I can control my behaviors and my reactions. And so, an example of stimuli might be, I’m in a really important meeting and my door bell is ringing and my child is crying and there’s a lot going on. But I’m able to keep myself calm and keep myself focused and stay engaged in the conversation that I need to now so that I can handle those other things in a little while.
So, the ability to self regulate, to be able to cope with stress, and to be able to keep myself functioning, is something that we hope that all adults get eventually, but we’re not born with it. It’s something that is developed throughout our lives, hopefully, starts developing in childhood. And some people, including myself, really believe that that play is something that can help facilitate regulation.
My ability to control my impulses, my ability to control my breathing, my ability to control my limbs, and my, My hands and, and my legs. Play, may also help kids to develop abstract thinking and higher cognitive functioning. And I know, we’re all very concerned about kids and their academic achievement. And I’m going to talk to you a lot about that in a little while, in terms of what research tells us about play and academic achievement, because, of course, that’s very important as well. And finally, one of the last theories for me to talk to you about is the social benefits or the social purposes of play.
So, play, maye, give kids an opportunity to learn and to practice roles and norms, and to develop social confidence.
And just as I was suggesting before, you know, taking, on the grownup role, taking on the cook role, taking on the cash register, the cashier role, these are opportunities for kids to practice and become confident in roles that they may hold later in life.
Certainly, now that I’m thinking about it, when, what was I playing when I was eight years old? I was playing teacher. And I loved to have people sit down and I would tell them what to write down, and they would write down and I would write on the board. And here I am, a few years later And realizing that all that play probably helped me to get where I am today.
So, those are just some of the many theories on the purpose of play. Now, I want to talk to you a little bit about my ideas of, kind of, how you can think about types of play. And I’m hoping that this conversation will give you some ideas on how you can engage kids in play, going forward.
And also, just so that, when you see this play happening, you can, you can be excited, and you can understand the benefits of what might be going on. To the first type of play that I’d like to talk to you about is object play. And, we’ve all seen adorable kiddos like this, right, engaging with objects in different ways. So, when we have our little babies, that one of the first things that they do, is, when they, when they develop the ability to pick up an object. And hold it, it’s very exciting. And then eventually, of course, it goes to their mouth. And this is when children are literally learning through this process, They’re learning how things feel. They’re learning how to control their fingers in their hands. They’re learning how to co-ordinate their hands. They’re learning what things feel like in their mouth.
Then, of course, as children get a little bit older than they start to be more co-ordinated. And so this child, in the middle here, she might be she might be working toward the point where she can co-ordinate her her hands and her eyes so that she can get that ring right on the post. And that’s co-ordination. That is vitally important for all of the the future development. That happens after that.
And then, of course, we’ve got this adorable kiddo here on the right who has picked up a regular old block, right? But it’s not a regular old block anymore. Now, it’s a telephone, right. So this is such an important step in a child’s development in their play.
So when that child takes that step from just playing with objects to using the object to make it into something symbolic, this block represents a telephone. That’s a really exciting milestone. Because it tells us that the child is advancing cognitively. They’re starting to be able to think abstractly, even though there’s not a telephone in front of them. They’re thinking phone. And they can mimic phone behavior, right? So, this is all play. You might not think of it that way, but that’s what’s going on and think about how these young children are learning so much through these interactions with objects. It’s kind of exciting when you think about it.
The last thing that I want to say about on this slide is that when children start to use objects symbolically, that is one of the first indicators of their movement toward verbal language.
So that’s a believe it or not engaging with objects is something that is going to get us eventually, closer to verbalizing.
And of course, we always want to work toward children verbalizing, so that’s really great milestones there.
So next, I wanted to talk to you about Physical Play, locomotor Play, Rough, and Tumble, Play. All of that stuff that when you look at these pictures, you can kind of almost hear the giggles in the background, right, and the left and the happiness and certainly we can see the smiles. So this is play, whether it’s involving adults or not, whether it’s involving other peers. This is play, that leads to all sorts of really important benefits, including the co-ordination of motor skills, right? We all know how important it is to be able to locomote, to be able to move around our environments.
And to sometimes, if we trip to, not always have to fall down right, to be able to have some balance to be able to control our limbs. These are all really important life skills that we don’t necessarily think about, but they’re very functional and important.
Of course, also, engaging in physical play is valuable for kids, because they can, not only physically locomote but sometimes also engage in behaviors. Physical behaviors that are challenging or risky, but still relatively safe. So this whole duck duck go scene, I don’t know if that happens at schools near you.
Sometimes they were current concerns. Oh my goodness, the child is going to fall down. I shouldn’t let them run around in a circle. Well, to be honest with you, most of us are not going to be terribly harmed right, if we are running around the circle and fall down. And, and, you know, running at a regular pace and falling down is relatively low risk for most kids, right?
And it allows for risk taking, and it allows for the expenditure of energy, and it allows for fun in relatively low stakes environments.
Of course, whenever we’re engaging in physical play or, or locomotor, play with other people, we’re also learning and developing in terms of our corn, excuse me, our communication.
So look at this wonderful child and adult dyad over here right. So they’re smiling at each other. They’re looking at each other face to face.
That’s a really positive and basic foundation for, for good relationship.
When adult and child are enjoying that interaction together that that is the basis of good communication and then of course, when we look at these children playing Duck Duck Goose, there’s probably somebody who’s very tense and wondering, am I going to get picked? The children are all certainly learning. I have to sit until I get picked. I have to control my arms and legs until then I’m focusing on my hearing.
All of this is going on in a simple game of Duck Duck Goose. And, of course, the child who doesn’t get chosen might be disappointed, but then they have to decide, am I going to throw a fit, and not be able to play with my friends anymore, Or, do I deal with it, do I let it roll off my back, because it’s more fun to stay and play, so, there’s all sorts of things going on in this inter personal play, in this physical play.
I am learning that I enjoy interacting with adults, I am learning, that we can have fun together. My communication skills are growing.
In this child group setting, patience, waiting, listening, taking turns.
It’s, um, it’s really kind of a wonderland of opportunities for learning and growth, and we’ve probably not even thought of that before.
So, um, next, I wanted to talk to you about outdoor play.
So, when I think of outdoor play, I think of children being outdoors, doing physical things, thinking, also having opportunities for social engagement and also, you know, verbal language engagement. So, what kinds of good things can happen, and what kinds of skills can be developed in outdoor play.
one of the major ones I think I want to talk to you about is sensory integration, and what what I mean by that is my ability to, to have sensory experiences and to be able to tolerate them and to be able to integrate them. So it’s cool outside today and I feel the cool air on my skin and I can tolerate that because it’s, you know, relatively comfortable.
I’m running on gravel and the gravel feels kind of funny under my feet. I have a sense of the co-ordination I need to be able to walk on that ground.
Hearing the other children, playing me, hearing the other noises in the environment, being able to hear all of the other noises in the environment and still focus on the child that is talking to me. That’s what I mean by sensory integration. It’s that it’s that having multiple sensory experiences and being able to kind of cope with them and process them and still keep functioning.
Um, of course, we know that exercise is really important for physical health. And when kids are outdoors, they generally have more opportunity for exercise. There’s research that says that classrooms tend to be segregated.
But, if we give kids opportunities to play outdoors, they may be more likely to engage and play with children of diverse backgrounds.
Because if there is diversity in the school, even if it’s not in the classroom, children have opportunities to play with other children outdoors. So, being able to develop friendships with children who look different than me. Being able to develop friendships with children who are younger than me or older than me. Being able to engage with children who aren’t exactly where I am, is a really important potential benefit of outdoor play. And my addition here, I didn’t read this anywhere, but I just intuitively believe it to be true, that being able to play outdoors may foster an appreciation of nature and the environment. And certainly, I think that that’s really vital and important.
Always, but especially as we As we start to see the very real challenges that are facing us with regard to the environment and stewardship of the environment.
So, I wanted to talk to you about social or pretend play, because I think that this is really another area that is exciting and important for you to pay attention to, and to notice what’s going on.
So, social, social play with others, could be with other children, or it could be with adults, or it could be a combination of the two and pretend play can happen alone. Or it can happen with others and what happens in pretend play. So you see this kiddo here playing the role of doctor so pretend play could be me, pretending to, be anything being, the grownup being, the cashier being, the doctor being the teacher.
It gives children an opportunity to take on a different role, too, to practice what it would be like, to be something different than what I am now, or to be someone different, or someone that I want to be.
It gives children a safe opportunity to experiment.
And and again, think about, I wonder if any of you have adult children and can think back to the kind of play they engaged in as children And what they’re doing these days, I remember one of my colleagues was telling me that their daughter, when she was young, always engaged in baby doll play and was always physically caring for those baby dolls. And she was not surprised whatsoever, to see that her daughter had grown up to be a physical therapist. And so I wonder if anybody else has anecdotal stories like that, in terms of children experimenting, and then winding up doing that later in life so I know it’s true for me.
So, how about social or pretend play with others? So, certainly, when children have an opportunity to engage with peers, there’s all kinds of things that can be developing, and that children are learning, negotiation. How do I, how do I get along with these kids? Because I enjoy being with them, even though I really want what I really want? How do I co-operate? How do I ask for what I want, in a way that I’m going to get it? How am I going to use my words? Right? These are all things that happen through play with peers.
And I wanted to talk to you about this concept of scaffolding, or the zone of proximal development. And I want to draw your attention to this photo with the adult who’s is providing a little bit of support to the child holding the ball. So when I see this image, I think about the zone of proximal development.
And for me, it’s important because the idea is that if we give children challenges that are far too challenging for them, they may not accomplish them. They may give up because it’s too hard.
But if we give them challenges that are just a tiny bit of a stretch, more than they’re able to do on their own, it’s not, too, too hard for them. They’re more likely to have success, and, and, and eventually accomplish that task. And so the second piece that I wanted to bring in here was scaffolding.
So if the, if they don’t just said to the child, bounce the ball to your classmate, the child might not have the hand eye co-ordination. They may not have the strength in their hands or in their arms to be able to successfully do that, bounce to the peer.
And so they might kind of give up, be frustrated, kick the ball, and then, you know, they’re done with that task. And maybe that’s not what the adults kind of was hoping to get out of that session.
But if the adult provides just the right amount of support, that that hand overhand support, maybe they can help the child with the control of their bounds, and maybe they can help them to have success. And then that child is going to, is going to have success and developing that skill.
So Dole’s, engaging in Play, and helping to determine if challenges are just right or far too much, and if children need support, is another opportunity to use Play, to help kids stretch in what they know and what they’re able to do.
So I don’t think that we see nearly enough of this kind of activity at school. And I would love to see much more of it, because what do you see is happening here? These children are smiling, right? They’re engrossed they are really paying attention to what’s going on. They seem to be enjoying it.
And we know that they’re learning, right? And they’re growing, And, And that’s what we need to see, right? We need to see kids engaged and enthusiastic about their, their learning and their growth.
So the last way that I want to kind of categorize play is to talk about self directed play versus adult guided play, and I really do believe that they both have value. So first, let’s talk about self directed play. We might call it child directed as well.
Basically, this is the kind of play that kids engage with when they’re just allowed to do whatever they want. We give them toys, we give them cardboard boxes, we give them pots and pans, we give them wooden spoons.
Whatever we have access to, And they can explore the way that they want. That’s a really wonderful opportunity for children. And I encourage you to think about how can you allow for more free play, because that’s an opportunity for children to explore what their interests are. And as the adult, it’s really neat to sit back and watch and observe and pay attention. We can learn a lot about what a child is interested in and what a child has learned and what a child has experienced by watching their play.
Next, I’d like to talk to you about adult guided play.
And that is when the adult plans play for a specific purpose. So, I give you this photo example of the adult who was blowing bubbles for the child and I don’t know if they had this goal in mind. But one of the reasons why I might blow bubbles for a child is because I want to help the child learn self-control. I might say something like, OK, I’m gonna blow bubbles, and your job is to pop the bubbles but only with your left hand.
So the child has to have their left hand ready and there only to pop the bubbles with their left hand.
And I blow the bubbles and they’re popping the bubbles with their left hand. So that may be for a specific purpose. Or we might do things like, I’m going to blow bubbles and then I’m going to tell you what to pop the bubbles with.
So I blow the bubble, puppet with your right elbow. And then they puppet with their right elbow. And that may be for the purpose of helping the child with their listening skills or with their co-ordination, or maybe even learning right from left, right? So engaging kids in play for a specific purpose can be really valuable.
Some other examples are engaging in drum play to facilitate co regulation. So what would that look like? The adult has a drum or a pot that they’re banging on. And the idea is that the child or children follow along in the beat, and, of course, it’s fun to make music together. And then the child is also learning, listening and co-ordination, and how fun it is to do something together. And, of course, I’m sure we’ll remember Simon says. I hope you do. If you don’t, please Google search it. Simon says can be used for all sorts of fun.
And also to facilitate things like listening and self-control and all of that good stuff that we want to see in kids.
So, I want you to know that play isn’t just good for kids. Play is actually really good for us as well, and I cannot stress this enough to you the past year, so, as I told you before, I am a mental health professional. I am a trauma therapist. That’s what I’ve done, my whole career. Even me, and everything, that I know about trauma and mental health, this has been an incredibly trying year.
I would not be as well as I am now if I did not engage in play. And I engage in play often. And here are some of the reasons why it is good for us.
So play with kids allows us to re-experience the joy of our own childhood. Can you think about how long it’s been since you felt the joy of your own childhood?
And some of us may not even actually remember a whole lot of joy from our childhood but we can actually recreate the joy that we wish we had in our childhood, right? And it can be really rejuvenating. Look at this adorable picture, of this grownup, and kiddo and how happy and light and and enthusiastic that grownup is right. When’s the last time you felt so good and happy? Right?
And certainly it’s not just good for me as an individual. But play between child and adult is really good for the relationship. And I mean this, for parents and their own children. I mean, this, for teachers and their students, social workers, and their clients.
When adults play with children, that benefits the relationship, there’s better communication. There’s better appreciation, There’s a decrease in stress for parents, and it just enhances the relationship. So, play is good for all of us, not just for the kiddos.
I just wanted to briefly show you this infographic, and it is in your handout so you can look back at it later. I think this is a really good tool for communicating the many different ways that play is beneficial to us. So I hope that you find it useful if you decide to go forward and try and educate anybody else about the benefits of play. Play facilitates communication, fosters emotional wellness, enhances relationships, increases personal strengths, all of those good things that we want to see in our young people.
So, I’d like to talk to you now about research on play and development.
And I’m just going to highlight a couple of things that I thought were particularly valuable in my reading.
So, there’s a read, there’s a body of research that says that the kinds of play materials you expose children to maye influence their ways of problem solving.
So, when children were exposed to more open ended, materials like blocks and Cardboard, boxes, pots and pans, things that can be used in lots of different ways. Versus branded toys for one specific purpose. So divergent, or open-ended play materials may encourage more creativity in play and also outside of Play.
Studies that this particular study looked at boys, and looked at their creativity in their communication, and they basically found that boys who were more playful, were also more creative and more communicative. And certainly, that’s something that we all wanna see, right? Is, is children being more verbal and more communicative. So, engaging in play might leave children to be more creative and more communicative.
Looking at pretend play, versus play with a lot of electronic toys. Probably not too surprising to you, certainly not surprising to me, when children were given access to pretend play versus playing with electronic toys.
Those children who engaged in pretend play more advancement in the development of their vocabulary.
So, really important thing to note that that play may lead to enhanced language development.
Certainly, there’s research that says that children who have opportunities to engage in dramatic play are more likely to have higher tier acceptance scores and better social skills.
So, that play in the dress up area where children are taking on characters or roleplaying may lead to better tier acceptance and more improved social skills.
Recess and Academic Success, this is one of my most favorite topics.
So a lot of times, recess is one of the things that gets cut when we have to prioritize academics. But the research indicates to us that actually when kids have more access to recess, they’re going to have more academic success later in life. In fact, looking at freeplay recess versus the impact of phys ed children in classes, after these play sessions, children who had opportunities for free play actually had better learning later than those kids that went to visit.
So, that freeplay and, and choice play, may facilitate better learning.
There are connections between play and curiosity, and curiosity. facilitates memory and learning.
So, again, academics should build basically upon a foundation of play.
We know that play is related to decreased anxiety, decreased stress hormones, and decreased attention difficulties.
So many things that we’re concerned about in kids can be linked with play.
So, as the mental health professional and the higher ed professional, again, I can’t stress it enough how I how valuable I think these are, and I want to remind you that it’s not just me. So, yeah, Kelly Martinez thinks that plays important.
But so, do all of these other really, expert people, The United Nations actually wrote it into the convention, on the right of the child, to, two, give children the right to engage in play. Educators and researchers across the world are advocating for the importance of play.
And, recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out and basically said that not only should pediatricians advocate for play, but they should actually prescribe play, because it’s that important. So, if you want, just take it from me, please take it from these experts, that play, is that vital and important to kids’ development and overall health.
So what are some reasons why play isn’t happening as much as we would like? There are many. I’m going to run through them quickly, because I’m sure all of you are aware of them.
So we, in our culture really prioritize academic achievement, right? We want kids to do well in school. So we do things like afterschool enrichment, we give them more homework, we focus, or I apologize for that typo but we focus on their test scores, and we focus on their college acceptance.
one of the sad things that we really are seeing these days, is that there are lots of young adults who are struggling with depression and anxiety, and lack of creativity, and I We wonder if it’s related to this very high priority on academic achievement. Certainly, parents lives are different than they used to be right, When I think about my life growing up in the seventies and eighties. Typically, you know, there were more parents at home. It wasn’t financially as necessary for all caregivers to work. And so, these days, parents have less time with kids, right? They have less time to encourage them to engage in play or to play with them.
There’s guilt about not being around as much, might lead to parents over scheduling things like lessons or or team things, or tutoring or other enrichment.
And so there’s less time for play in children’s lives as I’ve already alluded to, schools are often making cuts to phys ed, art and music to recess because they’re prioritizing test prep and what they see as as the focus on academic achievement.
There may be lack of access to safe places to play.
Or maybe there’s this perception that there aren’t safe places to play because we’re just not used to kids going out and playing anymore. Certainly, media and, and of course screens may encourage more passive consumption rather than active engagement. And certainly the screens have helped us tremendously to get through this past year, but they may have also gotten us into this idea that kids sit and watch versus actively engage.
And certainly people are here. There are lots of people out there to make money off of us, right. And advertisers and media often mislead us about what’s better for kids. There are no companies that promote this idea.
That if you, if you give your child access to our video product or or video game that it’s going to enhance their cognitive development, or show your child or videos, and they’re gonna learn to read earlier. There’s actually research that says that when children were allowed to play with blocks, or children were allowed to watch educational videos.
Those children that engage with blocks actually had better language development and actual improvements in cognitive skills, but of course, you know, Edward, aren’t going to tell us that they’re going to tell us to buy their product, so there’s so many reasons why play isn’t happening the way that we would like it, and certainly, for me, as somebody who Thanks, that, play is, is so vital if there’s just so many reasons why it’s not happening. So, what do we do now? What can you do to support play?
Well, first of all, thank you for being here, I appreciate it tremendously. Hopefully, my brief conversation with you will help you to understand more of the importance of play so that you can advocate to prioritize and protect play. Encourage, play in your own children and engage in play with your own children or those that you work with.
So how do you engage in play and encourage play? Just valuing it, communicating that play is important. Making the time for play in your schedule and in your children’s schedules, choosing materials that encourage creative play.
And, of course, engaging in the play yourself. And hopefully you can go back and look at my images and be reminded of lots of different ways that you can play.
And I would encourage you to start with your own child, or the children that you work with, and say something like, I’d like to play with you.
How do you want to play? Or, I have an idea. Let’s do this.
I wanted to talk very briefly, again, about regulation.
It is not something that we are born with, It’s something that we develop through relationship over time. And I wanted to just point out to you that when an adult can help regulate a child or sue the child, that child will eventually develop the ability to sooth themselves. And so I have some ideas on how you can facilitate that through play. First of all, just modeling and teaching regulation through frustration. For example, do you know the game Jenga, where you have to stack things on top of each other and sometimes they all fall down and you’re like, Oh, modeling, oh, this is tough. I’m having a hard time. This is hard for me saying those kinds of things out loud. You’re modeling how you tolerate your frustration.
And then, of course, when it falls down, you laugh and you say, Oh, that’s all right? I can do it again. And things like, as I suggested, the bubble blowing Simon says.
Freeze dance is another way that you can facilitate regulation listening to music, and then it stops, and you all have to stop dancing when the music stops. And the CTP roll, I’ll tell you very briefly, wrapping a child as they’re standing still and toilet paper. And they’re standing still, and you’re wrapping them up like a mummy. And then you say: when I say go you can bust out of the toilet paper 3 2 1 go, and the child eventually can bust out of the toilet paper. It’s so much fun for that child to stand still and learn how to control their arms and legs and listen and then to bust out, That’s another self regulation activity that can be fun.
So I do have ideas, and I’m gonna go a little bit quicker because I know we’re running at a time. Teens engaging in activities that they like to do. That’s my summary of this slide. There are lots of things that your teen may like to do.
Offering to get involved in what they like is what I would recommend if you’d like to play with teens, and what about virtual learning? So I’ve got lots of ideas on that, and I hope that this slide helps you.
I always use icebreakers to try and get people to connect and to loosen up playing catch. I’m gonna make believe, I’m making a snowball and I’m going to toss it to you. And you make believe you’re catching it, literally playing catch on Zoom. Or WebEx, or however you’re doing it, Again. Some of the ideas I’ve already shared playing, bingo online, there are lots of websites that you can find.
pre-made bingo boards, and I wanted through those of you who are mental health professionals, or …
or school professionals, please Google search, teleplay therapy or parent child, teleplay therapy. There are so many great ideas out there.
And for the educators, these last six bullet points are websites and free platforms that has been very valuable in the online learning environment for me, and I hope they are helpful to you. So I wanted to end with giving you some ways to learn more. In the handouts, They should be live clickable links, and I hope that you find them valuable to you.
Please check out Pinterest.
I’m not there yet, but everyone says that Pinterest has lots of ideas, just searching, how to play with my seven year old or how to play with my 14 year old, will give you some ideas and of course, kids these days are really into, among us, Minecraft, animal crossing. There are actually some great resources that I’ve linked here, on those things.
So what can you do now? I would encourage you to make a commitment that’s realistic for you. I would encourage you to start small, Maybe it’s just 10 minutes, once a week. But try and work yourself up to a regular schedule, where you’re either engaging in play with, or you’re encouraging, play in the kids that you care about.
I do hope that you keep in touch with me. I apologize that we don’t have a whole lot of time to talk, but I’m gonna stay as long as you would like to. And, if you’d like to continue to connect with me after tonight, please find me on Instagram, or on Facebook. And you’re also welcome to e-mail me, and I look forward to hearing from you.
I wonder what questions we have, and I would love to hear your feedback, as well. So I’m going to stop sharing, I believe.
OK, Colleen, thank you very much. Lot of information that you gave us on poor. But we do have some questions. The first is, What are your opinions and children? Maybe the 5 to 8 year old range, who enjoyed board games, Card games are puzzles that are not freeplay, but encourage interaction with others. And rule following, taking turns, et cetera.
I think they’re fantastic, Kelly. Did I do a good job of stopping my slide show?
Yes, you’re fine, OK, good, OK, I just wanted to make sure you weren’t seeing the rest of my computer. I think that if kids like to engage in board games and card games, it’s wonderful. And, and, I would say, I don’t generally expect free play much in kids over like 10 or 11 years old. So, in any, for, for younger kids, board games and card games are great. If they, if they enjoyed them, I think it’s a wonderful way to connect with them.
Great. Next question. How long do you recommend play in a kindergarten classroom?
Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. If it were up to me, if it were up to me, the whole kindergarten day would be play based. But I would say, the more, the better.
I, I’ve seen kindergarten classrooms over the years changed dramatically, and, and the classrooms that I feel the best about are the ones that incorporate play throughout the day, all day long.
I couldn’t give you a specific amount, because, of course, I know a lot of that is dictated by what your administration says that you could do. But in my fantasy world, it would literally be play all day long, and and with the with the understanding that, that play is going to lead to the same academic achievement over the long term For those kids. It’s not about Skirting. You’re avoiding the academic skills. I believe that the play would lead to the academic skills. And, please, for that person who asked that question, please pick up that book. Free to Learn.
It’s a valuable resource that I think you’ll enjoy a lot.
Are a good, My child will say They don’t want to play with me. How do I handle her?
Yeah, so, I, a lot of parents asked that. I think that you will be pleasantly surprised.
Your child may be a little a little shocked at first if you’re not used to that kind of interaction, but kids are generally so happy and enthusiastic too engage in things that they like So what I would say would be the most important thing is to say, I want to play what you want to play. What do you want to play, and what do you want me to do? If you give them the freedom and say, I want to play along with you, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
For older kids that don’t engage in freeplay, I would say definitely pick something that you know they like or say I’m willing to do whatever you want.
What would you like to do with me today Giving them the choice, I think is is really key.
What do you think the future of polio looks like during this pandemic?
So that’s a great question. I actually think that that play is going to be a really important key to helping kids get back to regular life. I think there’s going to be a lot of anxiety, and a lot of worry about being back together, and, and there’s gonna be a lot of pressure about, let’s hurry up and get back to academic achievement, and I think that if we use play as a way to reconnect, and as a way to feel good in relationship together with each other. I think it can actually be a very valuable tool. In fact, I’m looking to work with schools, on how we can use play to help the kids come back to school, and, and to feel good at school. So I think that Play can be a really important tool as we transition back to whatever our new normal is going to be.
Um, what happens if my child doesn’t play at all?
Wow, that’s a great question.
And I will tell you that I can’t address all of the possible reasons. But sometimes we see kids that don’t play because they have a lot of anxiety or a lot of fear. And sometimes we see kids that don’t play because of sensory issues. Perhaps related to autism spectrum.
And so what I would say for, for, regardless of the reason for why the child is not playing, I would look at play and play behavior as a goal. I, if I had a child that wasn’t play, my goal would be to facilitate play skills. So that eventually they can get to the point where they play. Because, as as I’ve been talking about for the past, our play is a foundation for language, and the foundation for relationships, and a foundation for academic learning.
So, if you do have a child that doesn’t play, I would say, make that your goal. Helping to develop play skills.
And it could be something as simple as practicing and getting to the point where you can roll a ball back and forth to each other. That could be a goal, and that might not seem like, you know, very dramatic play, but I’m a child. And I catch a ball and roll it back to you on the floor. That’s a step in the direction of developing play skills.
So, my child likes to make games, but the rules, these games, are constantly changing, is less normal. Absolutely. And when we think about, when we think about, like, why children play, one of the things that it makes me think about is that the child wants to practice and wants to figure out how much they can control and how much they can be in charge. And. And usually kids don’t have much control, and they’re not in charge of much in their lives. And so giving kids an opportunity to make these things up and to change them constantly can be very empowering and can actually, I personally think very good for their self-esteem.
Now, we’re not letting them make and change the rules in our entire lives, Right. But when it comes to the play or the game that they’re developing, I think it can be very valuable to give them that opportunity. Especially when it’s an adult that cares about them, and that adult has the patients. When they do it with peers. That could be incredibly frustrating and that could bring some social challenges. But If it’s adults and kid. I think it’s great to encourage that, and to, and to kind of tolerate it. Because that’s showing you that they’re kind of figuring out how to be a leader. How to make decisions, and how to be in charge. Which is actually really great for, for future skills, right?
All right.
Unfortunately, I have to work and send my preschooler to a daycare where she plays all day. Comes home as play with neighbors, etcetera. I’m curious. How often should I be playing with her?
Yeah. Oh, my goodness.
So I totally understand, like, who has time, who has time to like set up a play session? It’s so hard, and I don’t want you to feel burdened that you’re not doing it already.
I would say if you could do a 10 minutes special play session once a week.
I think that that is, is a very appropriate place to start. Like, I’m not talking about hours, I’m not talking about all week long, Like, literally, 10 minutes, once a week. Like, maybe like Sunday is the time. You know, whatever is your day that you have more downtime. Putting 10 minutes aside where it’s always going to be meeting you in our special play time. I think that that can be enough.
And I think you might find that if you do that 10 minutes, once a week, um, and you put all of your other responsibilities aside. You’ll benefit from it a lot, and your child benefit from a lot, and you might actually find that it’s so good for you that you want to do it more often, but I would say, realistically, start small, 10 minutes, once a week.
All right, so, we’re a little over, but I have one last question I’d like to get to.
My teenager will not want to play with me, but I want to connect with them. Yes, absolutely. And that’s a great one, and I completely relate, having a 15 year old in the other room, and what I would say is, go for what their interests are. If they are really interested in this video game that you have no idea about, and you’re genuinely not that interested, but you want to connect with your teenager, say, Hey, will you please tell me about your video game?
Or they’re walking around with their headphones on listening to music that you know you don’t love, but you want to connect with them. You say, Hey, can I, can I listen to your music with you? I promise not to judge, And, I promise not, to make you listen to my music. So, whatever it is that they are interested in. If you show a genuine enthusiasm.
And, and a desire to connect with them over, I think of it as their culture.
Connect with them on their culture.
I think that can be It can do a whole lot for for them knowing that you really care about them and who they are, and their identity, so connect with them on their interests, and thank you all for your great questions. I really appreciate them.
All right, Well, this ends tonight’s webinar. Thank you for joining us on the importance of play. There is an exit survey, which we need everyone attending to fill out.
The webinar blog is open now and available for the next seven days on the NGO CTAS website.
For any additional questions that were not covered in tonight’s presentation, that website is www.njcts.org.
And also, an archived webinar of tonight’s presentation are archived, yeah, archived recording will be presented. Our next webinar, The Nature Connection for Children’s Mental Health, will be presented by doctor Cathy Jordan and is scheduled for May 26, 2021.
Also, please register for our Next Family Support group, which is scheduled for tomorrow, April 22nd, at 3 PM, entitled, Stop Making That Noise: A Discussion on Misophonia, with doctor Marla Diebler, you can reach to the registration by going to www.njcts.org.
This ends tonights Webinar. Thank you, Doctor Martinez for your presentation, and thank you everyone for attending good night. Thank you.



  1. Q. Graham says:

    What if my child doesn’t play at all?

    • Colleen Martinez says:

      There are a number of reasons that a child might not engage in play. In my experience in therapy settings, it’s often emotional or developmental. For example, a child may be so anxious that they don’t engage in play. It’s almost as if they are too afraid to engage. In those situations, I usually give them lots of time and patience and eventually when they feel more safe in my space and in our relationship they will start to engage with the toys. Sometimes children don’t engage in play behavior because of developmental issues-regardless of how old they are they may not be there developmentally. If I’m working with a child who doesn’t engage with people or toys and other objects in playful ways I make that one of the goals of our work together; to develop play behaviors. I might start out with the goal of the child and I rolling a ball back and forth to each other. This can take time and lots of practice, but just the simple act of rolling a ball back and forth will help with eye contact, cooperation, and relationship building, so it’s well worth it. After we roll a ball back and forth, the child may experience some joy and happiness and may be motivated to engage in more play together. A final response I have to your question is that sometimes it seems as if children won’t play because they are constantly engaged with media- their video games or passive consumption of television and videos, etc. It may be that they have just gotten into the habit of passive and sedentary consumption. It may be that they never developed a sense of playing for fun or to explore. If you wanted to change those habits, you might start small and set aside some time each week, or each day, where no screens are used. Boredom is ok, allowing your child to feel that discomfort and figure out how to pass the time is a good life skill. If they don’t engage in play even when they are bored for a long period of time, you might plan activities that you can do together. While this may not be possible during the pandemic, having lots of opportunities to be around other children, and being outside will often lead to children playing as well.

  2. ktrends says:

    My child love to play games but wants to always change the rules, is this normal?

    • Colleen Martinez says:

      Yes! Many times play gives children an opportunity to practice; new behavior, new roles, new skills. When your child makes up games and changes the rules all of the time, it may be frustrating or annoying to you, but try to think about how they are developing their leadership, communication, self-advocacy and negotiation skills. They may also be finding ways to feel powerful in a time when they feel powerless in many areas of their life. If it’s usually just with you, I wouldn’t be too concerned, they will probably move on to mastering new challenges once they feel differently. However, if you learn that they are doing this a lot with peers, be aware that sometimes peers will be less tolerant. You might want to monitor how it goes with friends, and see if they work it out on their own (peer feedback can often be much more impactful than adult feedback!) That being said, if your child loses friendships because they always want to be in charge and change the rules too much with peers, you might want to give them some guidance on how to take turns making the rules.

  3. JessF says:

    How many hours a day/week would you suggest is appropriate for a preschooler (who goes to school fives days a week) to play at home? She plays a lot at school and with neighbors, but I am curious how often I should be playing with her at home?

    • Colleen Martinez says:

      Great question! I imagine you are thinking about a child who is 3 or 4 years old since you say ‘preschooler’. Believe it or not, at this age, many people would say that a child should spend most or all of their time in structured and unstructured play. I know that this may surprise you, especially when we think about the fact that many 3 and 4 year old children are going to academic settings for a full day, five days a week. That being said, I encourage you to consider two different things: First, there’s what we expect 3 and 4 year old children to do. Next, there’s what’s actually developmentally appropriate for 3 and 4 year old children to do. Just because our (highly achievement focused, highly competitive, very expensive so all caregivers have to work outside of the home to provide basic needs for the family) culture says that 3 and 4 year old children should go to ‘school’ and start learning letters and numbers and how to hold a pencil correctly, that’s not necessarily developmentally appropriate. Please know that not all cultures expect academic or even pre-academic work out of 3 and 4 year old children! Also, think back just a few generations ago: How did your grandparents spend their time when they were 3 or 4 years old? My guess is that they might have been in a family home, possibly with other children around, exploring and playing while their caregivers were nearby but otherwise occupied. Remember that ‘school’ for very young children is a relatively new concept. Some experts (myself included) are concerned with the focus on academic achievement and wonder if the lack of play and lack of unstructured peer contact is leading to our children having poorer social skills, poorer self regulation, less joy and happiness both in the learning process and in life in general. All this being said, I know it is not realistic for most families to have free play and exploration for their 3 and 4 years old children full time; we need to go to work, or work from home, and our children need to be in settings that sometimes don’t allow for play full time. What I would suggest is thinking about the developmental importance of play as you decide where to bring your 3 or 4 year old. Does the setting value and prioritize child choice, exploration, and socialization? Do they have space and materials to allow your child to safely explore and engage with materials and other children? There are all things I would reflect upon. When your child comes home with you after a long day at school and after your long day at work you may be tired and stressed and certainly your work is not done. While I know that you need to feed your family, take care of your home and your other responsibilities, I do encourage you to set some time aside to have ‘special play time’. This can be good for your child, good for you, and also good for your relationship. Even if it’s just once a week for 15 minutes, it would be great to have a time where it’s just you and your child together where you can ignore the other distractions and commitments and just focus on your child, either playing what they want, or playing something that you both enjoy. Over time you may find that you want to do that more often. If you need more ideas on how to play, please watch my webinar again, or even search online ‘how to play with preschoolers’ for inspiration.

  4. MichM says:

    What is you thought on play and the pandemic going on and also play and grieving

    • Colleen Martinez says:

      Great question! Many of us notice that young children are playing out their experiences, observations and feelings about the pandemic; children are putting masks on their dolls, they are playing out stories of characters not being able to go to school and missing their friends, and they are playing out stories of people getting sick. While we as adults might feel a bit sad that children are playing this way, it can actually be quite helpful to them. I encourage you to think about play as an opportunity to gain mastery and to achieve catharsis. Just like when something bad happens to me, such as a minor car accident, I often feel the need to tell and retell the story to whoever will listen to me, and over time I’m less upset about the experience, Children playing out themes related to their life during the pandemic (isolation, missing friends, worry about getting ill) can actually help them to feel less badly. That being said, sometimes if children continually replay the same upsetting story over and over without change, that can be problematic. Play therapists call this post traumatic play, and when the story doesn’t change or get better over time, it can actually cause the child more pain. If your child continually plays out the same upsetting story and they don’t seem to get relief, or the story doesn’t get better over time, that is a good time to consider consulting a play therapist. Credentialed play therapists can be found on the Association for Play therapy website, in their Find a registered Play Therapist directory https://www.a4pt.org/search/custom.asp?id=3571. Similar to my responses about the pandemic, I think that play can help a child process grief. Again, sometimes adults may feel uncomfortable seeing their child play out stories of sadness, loss, or death, but remember that play may be their natural and developmentally appropriate way of coping with upsetting feelings.