February 13, 2017

Carol Tang

Finding the Time to Play

Topics: Kids And Creativity, Creativity, STEM Education / Play, Learning at Home, Learning Through Play, STEM, STEAM


Tangheadshot.jpegDr. Carol Tang is the Executive Director of the Children's Creativity Museum in San Francisco. She is on the Board of Directors for the National Afterschool Association, the How Kids Learn Foundation, and Artists United as well as a reviewer for the academic journal, Afterschool Matters. She previously was employed as the team lead for out-of-school time grant making portfolio at the S.D. Becthel, Jr. Foundation, the director of the Coalition for Science After School, and head of exhibitions and public programs at the California Academy of Sciences. Carol has a Ph.D. in paleontology and is the author of the Jurassic articles in the Encylopaedia Britanica Online. You can reach her on Twitter at @CarolTang1.

As the Director of the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco, I am surrounded with reminders of the importance of family play time. Thousands of families come to the museum every month to make meaningful memories, spend quality time together, and have fun. As a bonus, parents also recognize that the museum provides activities that nurture creativity and help their children become critical thinkers and problem-solvers.

Play is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as, “...activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” But researchers have long documented that play does actually exert an important influence in child development. The United Nations has proclaimed play as a basic need and a right for all children around the world. In a long-term study, the World Bank concluded that play can significantly contribute to the economic success of even the neediest and hungriest children. So play does have a serious purpose!


Child development experts have long known that playing with toys and games helps very young children engage their muscles, develop hand-eye coordination and even learn about “natural laws” such as gravity and object permanence (that objects still exist even when one cannot see them!). With educational researchers more recently focusing on the importance of social and emotional learning, there is widespread acceptance that playing games helps children learn about teamwork and how to negotiate conflicts. Good sportsmanship--such as winning gracefully and managing emotions during a loss--are best developed throughout childhood by playing games and receiving guidance from caring adults.  Childhood games allows for young people to practice being good teammates and learn how to control their emotions in low-stakes settings before having to use these skills in academic or work environments.

 There are times, however, that playing without adult supervision is also important for child development. For example, in one psychological study, when kids were given a toy without adult instruction, they were able to find more ways to play and were engaged for a significantly longer period than if an adult showed them what to do. Sociologists have shown that while playtime has decreased over the past few decades, what has really plummeted is the time children spend playing without adult guidance. I am actually a huge advocate for family engagement and quality playtime, BUT it’s important to remember that kids also need to be left alone at times to make up their own games, negotiate rules without interference, and sometimes, be bored.

 Lastly, playing games is probably attractive to children because during playtime, they are creating a world where they have some control. Rules (especially ones they come up with!) are understandable and more predictable than the real world in which they inhabit. Games help children thrive and be empowered in one aspect of their life--but it also confers confidence and skills that extend well beyond playtime and into adulthood.


While I know all of these things as a professional educator, I have to confess that as a parent of a young child, it can be difficult in my personal life to apply these same lessons. The pressure of housework, homework, and extracurriculars is ever present-and on top of that, we also need to eat, sleep and bathe!  But as we just discussed, play cannot be treated as a luxury or a “nice-to-have” when we have time. As parents, we must commit to play just as much as we commit to homework and baths. So here are some of my tips for incorporating play in all aspects of your life: 

  • Dedicate enough time to play. Studies suggest that it takes children at least 30 minutes to get fully immersed in play--to set up the rules, get into their roles, experiment, and get in the flow. So set aside enough time (or else it can lead to frustration and may do more harm than good).
  • Reserve the best times of the day for play. Don’t insert playtime when your kids are most likely to be tired or hungry. We will get the best effort and most pleasure if the family plays when everyone is alert, refreshed, and energized.
  • Remove distractions during play time. If we value play, then we must recognize that it takes just as much concentration as email or to practice a musical instrument. So hold back on tangential conversations or interruptions when a child is fully engaged in play. Background television may seem harmless, but studies show that it might be might be more harmful than dedicated screentime because it constantly interrupts a child’s ability to focus.
  • Let go of the rules sometimes. When playing games, there is a time to follow rules and there is a time to allow children to make up their own rules. Following rules does promote self-control and helps children learn how to lose/win gracefully. But letting children develop their own rules--no matter how silly or biased they may seem--also develops skills for creative thinking and logic. My son sometimes comes up with rules that he thinks will help him win and it’s interesting to see how his mind works when he realizes that’s not the case after all!
  • Find ways to play with everyday objects so that you don’t need specialized props to be successful. Often, there is too much pressure associated with expensive toys or elaborate games. Novelty might be a good way to introduce excitement and keep all family members engaged, but don’t throw aside the familiar favorites--young children especially like to re-play the same game and the repetition gives them comfort. The most popular activities at the Children’s Creativity Museum are ones where families play and make something together, and that can be enjoyed again and again and again. Families love to dress up and act out a story, sing in a music video, or make things out of toilet paper rolls and crepe paper. It’s the personal interaction and doing something out of your normal routine of daily life that is meaningful in family playtime.

Even though I’ve given you reasons to take play seriously, ironically, my last tip is to loosen up! Be mindful to make it easy for yourself and your children to enjoy play. If playtime becomes too fussy, or rigid with expensive gadgets, and if the expectations for FUN-FUN-FUN are just too high, it feels like a chore and it becomes like a new year’s resolution that gets tossed aside. Find your family’s rhythm with play and don’t worry about how good it is for your kids. Be reassured that even the occasional tears, frustrated outbursts, and sibling arguments that erupt during playtime are part of the experience that all children need to grow up into well-rounded humans. So put down your laptop, tax forms, and dishes and pick up a ball, a deck of cards, and superhero cape. You deserve some playtime.


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