I often write about current research or headlines to provide additional context to a topic in the news. Most of my articles focus on various aspects of child development, such as whether children need play, whether technology is to blame for social issues such as lack of empathy and declining manners, what is social-emotional learning and should schools teach it, and ACEs, what are the effects of adverse childhood experiences and development. These are all important newsworthy topics which should be viewed collectively as pieces to the same puzzle. Each of these topics provides valuable information needed for healthy child development, and as such, they must fit and work together for the greater good. Let me explain in a few points.

1. Play.

Play promotes healthy development. Free play enables children to develop confidence building skills as well as a sense of personal ability and control. Free play fosters creativity through imaginary play, it supports development of socio-emotional skills, and enables children to have fun. In addition, play promotes the development of executive function skills, such as planning, problem-solving and decision making, and play builds effective communication skills. Collectively, play helps develop child’s core life skills, those skills needed to successfully navigate life today and tomorrow. While an argument between two children might be distressing to an outsider, it is teaching a necessary skill: peer interaction and social skill development.  Children must be able to build a repertoire of social skills, such as self-control and reasoning skills, which are acceptable in a variety of situations they will inevitably encounter. Play allows children to practice these skills through early role-play; to see how their behavior and actions affect an outcome. According to Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, “Play strengthens core life skills and reduces sources of stress.” This brings me to my second point: Stress.

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2. Stress.

Stress, depression, and anxiety rates are rising among children and teens.  According to Mental Health America, 48% of children feel very stressed, with causes ranging from schoolwork to body image. Between 2009 and 2017, rates of depression increased by more than 60% for adolescents between the ages of 14 and 17 and 47% for those 12-13 years of age (Journal of Abnormal Psychology). From a developmental perspective, stress interferes with memory, the ability to pay attention, and can negatively affect one’s long term health and emotional stability.  According to School Mental Health, “Students who experience traumatic stress perform worse academically and cognitively, with teachers reporting worse classroom behavior”.  In the United States alone, nearly 50% of all children have experienced some form of traumatic stress during their childhood. Traumatic stress can result from many different situations, including a parent’s deployment, divorce, or job loss, or from the death of a family member. Stress is negatively impacting our kids in varying levels and degrees, however, we can minimize some of the impact. This brings me to my third point: Social-Emotional learning.

3. Social-Emotional Learning (SEL).

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, SEL is the “process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions”. There are 5 key components associated with Social-Emotional learning; self-awareness, self-management, decision making, social awareness, and relationship skills. Although society holds certain expectations of age-appropriate behavior, the components of SEL are fluid and dynamic skills which follow a different trajectory for each person.  A child’s interaction with their environment will play a key role in development, and similar to adults, some children and adolescents will display better social and emotional skills then others. Additionally, other factors such as gender, cultural expectations, and biological factors might influence development in these areas. 

The specific skills and processes of Social-Emotional learning can be fostered through play. The benefits of play for healthy child development cannot be understated. Play allows children to develop physically, cognitively, and socio-emotionally through many avenues. While schools are gearing up for the academic school year it would be beneficial to consider what science knows… play provides the tools. Play can reduce stress, facilitate healthy development for kids of all ages, and provide a stable foundation for learning.

Lisa Smith, M.A. DEVM, Teacher’s College Columbia University, is an Educational Consultant specializing in customized workshops supporting child development through play. Ms. Smith is also an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Union County College.  She can be reached at Ljs2198@TC.Columbia.edu or her website Playlearn.net