The Importance of Play: Perspectives from Nancy Watson, Social Worker at Lake Forest Country Day School

Lake Forest, IL

Lake Forest Country Day school is a Little Lake County Advertising Partner.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a report this fall telling doctors to prescribe more PLAY. I’m sure you saw it in your news feed and scoffed, play!

All my kids do is play!

As we head into the long winter months, we talked to Nancy Watson, LCSW and the Lake Forest Country Day School Social Worker on what exactly the report means, what is play and how you can encourage it in your children.

the importance of play

According to Nancy, who has read the complete study, the AAP is explicitly referring to unstructured play. Play is defined as an opportunity for children to discover and explore in an unstructured and autonomous way. Basically, it means allowing your kids to play alone and let them manage their emotions, boredom, curiosity, creativity, negotiation skills and more. It means providing them with the resources; a safe space, interesting toys and materials, and then stepping back and letting them figure out how and what to do.

Play is:

  • Unstructured – they choose, they lead
  • Autonomous – they direct what happens when
  • Discovery – free exploration

With our current busy schedules, unstructured play is happening less and less. We have to be intentional about not scheduling to allow for unstructured time to play and discover.

Autonomous unstructured play helps children build and discover their sense of self and their understanding of others. It develops and hones the social-emotional skills that are so necessary for having a well balanced and happy child. With less time spent in unstructured environments, social workers are seeing more children lacking these social-emotional skills that they need to cope with life. They are seeing an increase in stress, anxiety, depression.

Really? Play will ward of mental illness in children?

In short, yes.

Autonomous play allows children time to discover themselves – their likes and dislikes, how the world works, how people work. It empowers them and installs confidence and self-esteem. Play is intrinsically motivated and leads to discovery and learning.

While autonomous play is the most critical part highlighted in the report play with parents is essential too. When children play with parents, it deepens the parent-child relationship. When you let the child lead that play it also allows you to discover, create, and explore, together.

importance of play
photo provided by LFCDS
What are social-emotional skills and how will play develop them?
  • Self/Social Awareness
  • Emotional regulation
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision-making skill

All these skills help a person look inward and develop themselves. Focusing on external validation, especially as a child, is easy; test scores, games won, prizes awarded. Independence, resilience, confidence; these internal skills are like a vaccine against depression and anxiety allowing children to learn how to face obstacles, failures, and change.  It helps them develop confidence, healthy relationships, and problem-solving skills. Resilience is built through experiences which cultivates independence and protects against later mental health issues.

You’ve probably seen the term Growth Mindset – it’s all the rage these days. It’s just a fancy word for learning these social-emotional skills. It’s letting your children practice making mistakes and facing obstacles in a safe environment so that they build the skills they need to meet those harder challenges and mistakes later in life.

importance of play
Photo provided by LFCDS

Practical Ways to Encourage Play

Aim for some screen-free time between kids and their peers and kids and parents. Playing Fortnite together is fun but screens remove the interpersonal communication that children need to experience, learn and hone on their own.
Practical solution: Schedule a monthly family game night and break out the old school board games. Invite over another family and make it a social experience too!

Foster independence by giving them small tasks that allow them to build skills.
Practical Solution: walking the dog. Allow them to take the dog down the block, or just out to the yard. Teach them what to do and then back away and let them learn from their experiences.

I have an only child how can I encourage free play?
Practical Solution: Give them a project, such as a family dinner. Give them the tools (cookbooks etc.) to plan the entire things. Help them with the shopping but let them lead the cooking and presenting.

Start having Family meetings. Wait what? I’m in meetings all day, that’s not playing. It’s not, but it’s important for teaching children respect and instilling that they are partners in the family. Use the time to talk about things that are happening, what’s coming up, what the kids want to see and do as a family.

Make autonomy part of routine.
Practical Solution: Don’t pack your child’s backpack in the morning. Teach them what they need to do whether that’s a pictures chart or a checklist then give them the space to do it. Encourage and help them by talking through it but give them space to do it themselves. This will foster independence, which leads to self competency and will help them develop their self-identity.

importance of play
Photo provided by Lake Forest Country Day School

What about everyone else?

I am a pretty free-range parent, and I mentioned this to Nancy. I told her the story of how my perfectly capable ten-year-old didn’t want to walk across the street to a store because:

I don’t like walking on the street alone; people look at me like I am doing something wrong.

About the mother in Wilmette who was arrested for letting her eight-year-old walk the dog.

She acknowledged that as a society, we have a way to go, but that it starts with us parents. We need to offer our children autonomy and freedom that is within our comfort level. That can look like:

  • Letting them plan a day for the family – activities, meals, etc.
  • Allowing them to walk the dog
  • Have a YES day

The most important thing is that it is child led, allow them to start to be autonomous individuals. This will look different based on the ages of your children. No one is suggesting a three-year-old should walk the dog, but a ten-year-old? Here’s the leash.  

Bottom line:

Play builds essential life skills.

Let the  AAP be the fall guy when grandma, neighbor, best friend, whoever scoff when you say that you haven’t signed your child up for [ fill in the blank] activity. Simply say, we’re scaling back and working on our social-emotional selves.  The AAP report is not new knowledge but highlights the critical need to help our children master essential developmental tasks, build lifelong social-emotional skills and engage in nurturing relationships in our fast changing and complex world.

importance of play
Photo provided by LFCDS

The early childhood experience incorporates everything this study touched on in the daily schedule of all the children. There are several blocks of time throughout the day with free and open play and several recess a day. Their outdoor classroom spends most of the day outside. This continues into the primary and middle grades where children get 2-3 recess a day in addition to daily Physical Education classes that whenever possible are held outside.


Lake Forest Country Day School is a co-educational independent school for students age two through eighth grade that has been graduating students of strong character with a passion for learning since 1888. Play-based, experiential-learning curriculum drives the Early Childhood Center (ECC) with stellar student-to-teacher ratios of 7:1 ECC students learn throughout the School’s state-of-the-art facilities which include: a 2800 sq. ft. Innovation Lab, a dedicated ECC Outdoor Classroom, and a newly renovated Performing Arts Center. Visit one of their upcoming Open Houses scheduled for January 10 and February 7 or contact them today to set up a tour!

Lake Forest Country Day School
145 South Green Bay Road, Lake Forest, IL 60045
(847) 234-2350
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Disclosure: Lake Forest Country Day School is paid advertising partner of Little Lake County, all thoughts and opinions are the writers own. If you are interested in having your business featured please contact us.

About Melissa Haak 626 Articles
Melissa is mom to 4. She used to dream of traveling the world, now she dreams of a clean kitchen. She can be found on most social media sites as @PBinmyHair because with this much hair and four kids, you're bound to find something in it.

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