Pacific School in Manhattan Beach
Our Hopscotch explainers
from Pacific School in
Manhattan Beach as
they get ready to teach
hopscotch at USC workshops.

By Dr. Frances Berres
Child psychologist


Play. So much is encompassed in that one word: making hand puppets or building forts, shooting marbles or hoops, playing a serious game of chess or a giggly game of Boggle, pretending to be a monster or a princess. It's all play -- and it's all extremely important.

Children learn so much from play. It teaches socialization skills such as sharing, taking turns, self-discipline. Waiting to take a turn teaches delayed gratification. Playing with a group teaches teamwork. Cooperating during play is the first step in making friends.

Games also involve understanding rules and being willing to follow them. It also involves sportsmanship. Being a "good sport" is part of playing Candyland as much as it is in high school basketball -- and in the workplace.

But play isn't always about rules, or socialization. Playing alone and imaginative play are just as important as a game of checkers. Solitary play and creative play build up different strengths.

Although play is often called the work of children, it shouldn't be hard work. Parents need to encourage play by valuing it, facilitating play times, and joining in some of it. But play is not a programmed activity like piano lessons or soccer or dance class. Too much programming spoils play.

The approach parents take is crucial. Take a game of Chutes N Ladders or Monopoly: are you out to trounce your child or are you out to enjoy her company? You're the role model. The mind set you bring to the game board will set the tone for the game as well as teach a child how to approach games for a lifetime. Win at all costs and gloat about it -- or laugh and tease lightheartedly. Also, know when to play by the rules -- and when to ignore them and come up with new ways to play -- both are important.

Physical games were always important in childhood but now with so many kids becoming TV addicts, couch potatoes, and computer obsessives, getting up and playing games that expend energy is essential. The incidence of childhood obesity and diabetes is increasing at an alarmingly fast rate. What can you do? How about hopscotch? Or jump rope? Or hide and seek?

If you are concerned about play taking away from learning time, find ways to incorporate the two rather than choosing between them. Children can learn numbers and letters and vocabulary using dull, rote methods or they can learn (probably quicker) with fun games.

Through play, children learn both about the world they live in and to fantasize about other worlds. Children play Mommy and Daddy to learn about what it means to be grown-up. Mimicking the adult world around them helps them to process reality. They pretend at being professionals -- not just the always-fascinating fireman and policeman but they take on the roles of the adults they know -- nurse, teacher, plumber, postman.

And play can be of the most fanciful kind. Imaginary worlds and creatures. Einstein himself said that imagination is more important than knowledge.

When children go through a trauma, they often re-enact it over and over. This play (even of shootings, accidents) helps a child to absorb and process what has happened. It may often seem disrespectful but it is how children deal with grief. Children not only learn through play, they heal through play.

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