Any adult, parent or grandparent can recognise the look of delight in a child’s eyes when they are fascinated by a favourite toy. Over the last few years, research has found that playtime is much more than fun for kids. Whether it’s playing ‘peek-a-boo’ with your baby, ‘let’s pretend’ with your toddler, or airplanes with your three-year-old, play has been found to stimulate their social skills, imagination and language development. But it turns out that playtime isn’t just important for little ones.
A growing number of studies are finding that it’s surprisingly good for you too. In fact, as parents lead increasingly busy lives, entering your child’s imaginative world could be the single easiest thing you can do to de-stress. Dr Jacqueline Harding is a leading child development expert and a senior lecturer at the University of Middlesex.
She has just finished the first review of the evidence on the effects of playing with children has on grown-ups to coincide with the launch of Fisher Price’s new campaign, Let’s be Kids, which celebrates seeing the world as kids see it.
And she says the science is finding it’s the ultimate two-way street. Indeed, Dr Harding, who has looked at more than 100 research papers, says that far from seeing playing with kids as a ‘guilty pleasure’, we should see it as an essential ‘antidote’ to adult stress.
Dr Harding says: ‘There’s tons of research out there on the value of play to children. ‘But less is known about the mutual benefits.‘By looking at research across a range of disciplines around play, we are starting to join the dots and recognise that grown-ups reap huge advantages too.’
It seems the timing of the findings couldn’t have come at a better time. As a parenting author of ten books, many of which examine how stress can suck the joy out of parenting unless we take steps to mitigate it, this is welcome news.
In books like ‘Mum Hacks’ and ‘What’s My Child Thinking?’, I have charted how economic uncertainty, long working hours and rising child costs, as well as the pressure to feel like the perfect parent, has made the parental balancing act feel tougher than ever. So Dr Harding’s conclusions that play can be as stress-relieving for adults as it is for kids, feel like the ultimate win-win.
Dr Harding also believes the review is timely. She says: ‘It’s widely agreed that humans are carving out a way of life that is characterised by unprecedented levels of stress. The Mental Health Foundation found that 74 per of adults felt very stressed, that rose to 81 per cent in women. Until now, we had a hunch that play can also calm an adult’s physiological responses, but now we are seeing the big picture to show that more conclusively.’
So why is playtime such a powerful de-stressor for adults?
The secret is the feed-back loop that happens when you connect through play. Dr Harding says: ‘Entering a game with a child increases levels of well-being chemicals in both your brains – mood-enhancing endorphins and the bonding hormone oxytocin. This, in turn, reduces the levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, which can build up when we lead busy, stressful lives.’
‘Playing with your child also seems to tap into adults’ memories, recalling times when for some perhaps life felt simpler and more joyful’. All play is good for you, but to get the best benefits, Dr Harding advises taking steps to really be in the moment with your child.
‘If you feel shy at first, try some practical steps to get going, like getting down on the floor with them.
‘That helps take us away from that adult world where we can sometimes feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders. The other important thing is sit face-to-face so you have eye contact. Put aside your phone too so your child feels secure in the knowledge that nothing will interrupt your time together. When you are both on the same level, making eye contact and focussing on a third thing, like a toy, that sends out the message: “We’re both really interested in this together.’
This is a process Dr Harding calls ‘play triangulation’, or joint enjoyment of a plaything.
‘This can start as soon as between nine and twelve months when babies start to shift their attention for longer periods and enjoy sharing an interest in an object.’ While it may not happen every time, the best playtimes come when you and your child enter a state of ‘flow’, says Dr Harding.
This is when you are both so engrossed that you lose track of time and it feels as if your imaginations are flying away together. Dr Harding says: ‘As your emotional states start to match, your brain network starts to get in synch too. When you are both completely in the moment, this evokes a fabulous sense of wellbeing in both of you. Your heart rate goes down; your breathing relaxes and that’s a good place for both of you to be.’
The research also uncovers benefits for older generations, which is a good reason to get grandparents involved in playtime as well. Positive interactions with others not only reduce social isolation of older adults but can promote health and well-being. In addition, active play has the potential to prevent cognitive decline that can happen as people age by activating processes that help maintain individual brain cells and stimulate connections between neurons
So next time life seems a little too rushed, don’t look for ways to speed up on the hamster wheel to try and things get done –and as the new Fisher Price research review suggests: ‘spend less time growing up and a little more time growing down.’
Instead, look for an on opportunity to step off it for a play session with your child. However long you have together, far from being a waste of time, picking out their favourite toy and inventing a game around it could be the best use of your time.
Dr Harding says: ‘’Research shows that children laugh about 600 times a day, while adults laugh about five, if we are lucky. We need to bring playfulness back and who better to show us how than our kids? Sitting down and playing could be not only the best thing you can do for your child. It could also the best thing you do for yourself as a parent.’