Why is play important? Experts weigh in on International Day of Play 

June 11 is International Day of Play, observed to uphold every child’s fundamental right to play

Published - June 11, 2024 03:06 pm IST

Play is the foundation for everything

Play is the foundation for everything | Photo Credit: RAO GN

“We would just walk and walk, covering the whole of Madurai on foot,” my father would say, describing his after-school hours. Playtime, in his younger days, meant exploring; climbing trees; and bathing in the pond. Today, though, a lot has changed. So much so that the United Nations has ideated a day dedicated to safeguarding a child’s fundamental right to play. June 11 is the first International Day of Play, which, according to the UN, ‘creates a unifying moment at global, national, and local levels to elevate the importance of play.’

So, how important is play to a child? “Play is the foundation for everything,” says Sivaraj, the founder of the Cuckoo Movement for Children in Tamil Nadu, which works with rural children to provide them with a nurturing childhood. With over two decades of experience with children, Sivaraj feels that playing as a group is crucial for a child’s development. “Some 15 years ago, playing implied a group activity that brought together all the children in the neighbourhood. Today though, it has become isolated,” he feels, adding that play has to involve all the five senses.

Play, he says, is essential to burn the extraordinary amount of energy children have. “It also instills a sense of community, through which they learn the basics of living in society.” With gadgets and loud, bright toys steadily replacing outdoor playtime, many parents are keen on their children enjoying unstructured, free play.

Play is essential to burn the extraordinary amount of energy children have

Play is essential to burn the extraordinary amount of energy children have | Photo Credit: PERIASAMY M

Erode-based Madhu Karthik, mother of a 10-year-old, is among them. She runs Lila Learning Space, an alternative learning centre for children to thrive through activities inspired by various schools of thought, including Waldorf and Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Madhu feels that the benefits of open-ended toys such as blocks and clay are much higher when compared to close-ended toys such as jigsaw puzzles that require children to assemble structures using instructions from a pamphlet. “There is no right way to build a castle or create a train,” she says, adding that such toys make play a task that has to be completed instead of just having fun in the process.

“We sometimes tend to make play a task in the name of learning,” she feels, pointing to examples of structured, rigorous activity-based learning modules. No toy can replace quality time spent with parents, adds Madhu. “The best way for a parent to bond with their child is through play. Even a simple game of peekaboo would do,” she says.

The science of play

Science educator and innovator Arvind Gupta, who has popularised simple ‘toys from trash’ with everyday objects, feels that International Day of Play is essential to appreciate the crucial role of play in a child’s life. “Children learn so much through play. When they interact with other children, they learn to negotiate, to deal with society, to give and take; they learn that it is okay to fail,” he says.

Science innovator Arvind Gupta at a toy making workshop

Science innovator Arvind Gupta at a toy making workshop | Photo Credit: VEDHAN M

The 70-year-old scientist who went to IIT Kanpur has written several books to popularise and simplify science among children. His short videos on YouTube on making such toys are hugely popular, all of which are free to access without copyright restrictions. Arvind says he was fortunate to have an “enlightened mother” who let him be. “In my childhood days, I would spend the whole day tinkering with my toolbox, putting together something or the other,” he recalls. “My mother would not ask me if I had exams or schoolwork to be done. She would say, ‘He is happy doing what he is’,” says Arvind.

He spent his childhood playing cricket and gillidanda in tiny lanes, making toys out of matchboxes, and tharasu (balance) with empty shoe-polish boxes. “A rich relative once gifted me a Meccano. I played with it for a year, making many things, more than what was listed in the brochure,” he recalls.

Arvind lives in Pune and says that now that the summer holidays have ended, children in his neighbourhood are back to their routines of some class or the other in the evenings. “They go for swimming, badminton… after attending half a dozen classes, they come back looking sad and tired. There’s no energy to play,” he says. The best thing an adult can gift a child is: “Large chunks of time to be alone and to figure out things for themselves.” This, he feels, is the ideal playtime.

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