Why Being Playful is Essential to Teen Development

When your teen was born and throughout the first few years of their life, you might have been very playful. Perhaps you spent time with them playing “Peek A Boo” or “Hide and Go Seek” or “Patty Cake”. Yet, over time, the amount of time you spent playing with your child likely began to dwindle as your child got older. And by the time your child reached adolescence, play was probably out of the picture. Sadly, in some families, play doesn’t exist at all.


However, experts recognize that play is an essential part of teen development. It contributes to cognitive, physical, and emotional health. In fact, play has so many benefits it’s a shame that it’s not given more attention. But factors such as a busy lifestyle, divorce, changes in family structure, and placing more attention on academics can quickly stamp play out of a child’s life. Not only does research show the benefits of play for children, but even throughout adulthood play contributes to psychological and emotional well being.


The Benefits of Play for Teen Development

There are a number of benefits that children gain when they have the chance to play. Those benefits increase when parents join in on a child’s play. Here is a short list of the benefits that playfulness has on teen development:

  • contributes to healthy brain development
  • allows children to use their creativity
  • helps to develop imagination
  • contributes to improved dexterity
  • aides in developing physical, cognitive, and emotional strength
  • provides an opportunity for children to begin to interact with the world
  • gives children the chance to face fears and role play
  • contributes to mastering the world around them
  • helps build confidence
  • adds to resiliency
  • teaches children new ways of resolving conflict
  • allows a child to practice decision-making skills
  • gives a child the opportunity to discover their world
  • allows a child to express their passions and interests
  • gives a child the opportunity to express uncomfortable emotions not easily expressed through words
  • can strengthen the parent-child relationship


Furthermore, when parents join their child in play without directing the experience, parents have the opportunity to see the world through their child’s eyes. Research shows that parents who glimpse into their child’s world learn to communicate more effectively with their child.


Play is Disappearing in Schools

In general, academics is becoming more of a focus in public and private schools around the country. Recess times went down recently as schools focused on preparing their children for academic success. One survey done in 1989 found that 96% of schools had one less recess period. Later, in 2009, another survey found that only 70% of kindergarten classes even had a recess period. Some schools reduced their recess, creative arts, and physical education time to meet the No Child Left Behind Act requirements of 2001.  Some parents are following the trend of schools by encouraging their children skip play time and focus on their homework. Despite this trend, mental health experts are clear that the more play a child has in their life, the more resilient, confident, and intelligent they are. This remains true throughout teen development and adulthood.


Play can Facilitate Adolescence

Take a look at the benefits of play above and you’ll see that many of them can support teen development as well. For instance, play contributes to imagination, curiosity, and discovery, just to name a few. In fact, during adolescence, curiosity, discovery, and imagination are precisely what’s necessary at this life stage.


One of the most important tasks of a teen during teen development is to discover a sense of self. Because teens are transitioning between childhood and adulthood, they are often pulling away from parents and spending more time with friends. They are trying out new things and modeling the behaviors of friends they like. They are doing all this to piece together for themselves a solid sense of self.


If you haven’t played with your teen before, you might have to learn to play! When you discover play and how wonderful it can be, you might also discover that play can inspire the following in your teen (and you!):


Curiosity –  The teen brain is bursting with growth, and the burst of power and energy in the adolescent brain is also a search for what is new – a teen is highly curious. The teen wants to try new things, explore the world, and role-play. Although this also comes with impulsivity, a parent with a deeper understanding of a teen’s brain growth might allow for more investigation of the world while curbing a teen’s impulsivity.


Discovery – Discovery is one of the most powerful tools for growth and development. Discovery means finding out about yourself. It means learning from your own experiences and adapting so that your life works for you. It means being curious, open, and finding ways to move forward. Discovery is what most children and teens do naturally. They explore, find out more, and have fun in trying new things.


Imagination – A significant part of finding oneself is trying on new roles. In fact, many teens often role play without even knowing it. They might try on a new hairstyle, a new way of dressing, or a new mannerism. Teens tend to experiment with feelings, thoughts, and moods. And once they’ve gathered information, they can use their imagination and pretend to have that new belief or behavior down. For example, let’s say a teen admires how one of their teachers is very composed, elegant, and mature in the way he carries himself. And so they try it on for themselves. They wear the feeling to see how it works and doesn’t work for them. What’s great about being a teen is that you can make it all up. You can experiment and try out various attitudes, beliefs, ideas, feelings, and moods.


Play can Strengthen the Relationship with Your Teen

If the relationship with your teen needs some improving or strengthening, having fun is a great way to do it. In fact, playing with your teen can:


Heal emotional wounds – When you play with your teen, you help shape their brain. When an emotionally insecure teen plays with a secure adult, the adult helps to reshape negative beliefs into positive thoughts, excitement, and even positive choices.


Build a strong sense of self – When a parent and teen play together, there are many moments in which a parent can authentically see their teen. And when a child feels seen it can help build and strengthen a sense of self.


Develop intimacy – Emotional intimacy is rare in families who tend to focus on academics, chores, and routine. However, play creates many moments of emotional intimacy and can help strengthen the relationship between parent and teen.


Ways You and Your Teen Might Play Together

The emotionality, curiosity, and creativity of teens can be challenging and create problems for some parents. However, it can also ignite a teen to explore, take positive risks, and role play to uncover who they are. The passionate heart and mind of a teen can be used to discover a sense of self, and throughout life, it can foster the strengthening of this self. For this reason, it’s important that parents ensure play time with their teen. Here are a few ways parents and their adolescents can play together:


  • joke and interact playfully together
  • host a game night with your teen’s friends
  • turn off technology and enjoy the afternoon at the park
  • let your teen take the lead in a playful game together
  • play with your pet or your neighbor’s pet
  • play hooky together and enjoy time at the beach
  • be creative together
  • give your teen a day off from household chores
  • take a cooking class or a dance class together
  • join your teen on the town one night
  • role play with your teen
  • play Charades or Pictionary together
  • watch a comedy together and have a good laugh
  • create a secret handshake together
  • take a mini vacation together
  • have one night of the week dedicated to fun and play


If you haven’t played with your child today, try one of the above activities. Remember that play is not something to leave for when you have some free time. According to the National Institute for Play, being playful with your child can foster healthy development, strengthen relationships, and shape the brain in healthy ways through teen development.