Have adults forgotten how to play? In 2023, a viral TikTok video asked adults a simple question: “Do you remember how to skip?” Many did not. In a recent survey of 25,000 children, across 36 countries, 73% reported that the adults in their lives did not take play – and how it can help children learn – seriously. Yet a large body of scientific evidence demonstrates that play offers children social-emotional, physical, and academic benefits. And the scant literature on play in adults suggests that in today’s world, as adults are plagued by climate crises, political polarization, and loneliness, play might help them achieve a sense of wellbeing.

Today, on June 11, 2024, the United Nations is observing the first International Day of Play.  This day reminds us that “play is the work of childhood,” as psychologist Jean Piaget is believed to have said.

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What is play?

The past two decades have been rife with research on play and playful learning. Play is an elusive concept: Researchers define it as something that is active and engaging; meaningful; often socially interactive; iterative, in that we keep trying new combinations of activities; and – above all – joyful. Some would also say that play must be voluntary.

There are many different types of play. Dramatic play allows children to adopt new perspectives as they become dinosaurs, unicorns, or actors on a school stage. During object play, children (and even scientists) tinker to discover how things work or invent something new to solve a problem. And physical play encompasses rough-and-tumble activities as well as more regulated play, such as musical chairs or sports.

In free play, the child initiates and directs an activity like building a fort. In guided play, the adult sets up an environment with a clear learning goal, but the child directs the learning within that space, as in a Montessori classroom or a children’s museum.

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Why is play important?

Twenty years ago, we were not yet aware of how important playful learning is for children. Since then, we’ve discovered that children learn more vocabulary during dramatic and guided play – whether in a classroom or in well-designed digital games – than when they are taught in a more traditional way without play. Games like musical chairs, Simon Says, and “conducting” group rhythmic games help to build what we call executive function skills, including attention, memory, and impulse control. We’ve also learned that guided play that touches on aspects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics boosts children’s outcomes in these areas. We now know, thanks to numerous studies, that play is not mere frivolity, but central to children’s learning and wellbeing.

“Play is not mere frivolity, but central to children’s learning and wellbeing.”

The inaugural International Day of Play elevates play to its rightful status – as an evolutionarily endowed behavior that brings important advantages for children and adults alike. If we can learn to skip again and be the explorers and curious creators we were meant to be, we might better understand the power of play and learn to take it more seriously – so that children, as well as adults, can thrive.

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