Kids Play (vs. Kids Being Entertained)

I took a walk around the block the other day with my kids and my Mom. We picked up sticks, noticed different flowers (practicing colors and right/left association), and threw rocks in the pond. That was pure play, plain and simple.

It got me thinking about how much my kids play. How often they play. Where they play, and what they like to do when they are playing. And I suddenly felt so glad they are used to playing together most of the day.

Even when the screams make me think they are killing each other and I’m going crazy. I’m so glad their go-to source of fun is playing together, not being entertained by myself or a screen.

What is Play?

  • Play is self-chosen and self-directed,
  • Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends,
  • Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players,
  • Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life, and
  • Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind. (source)

Entertainment is:

  • Watching television or movies,
  • Playing on the tablet (some games are both play and entertainment),
  • When the mom or dad is the central figure in the play,
  • Participating in crafts or activities with specific end goals, and
  • Having a day completely structured by the caregiver with no time for free play.

There’s obviously a place for entertainment in life and in the home, but I’m going to build a case on why I think that entertainment should fall much further down the list than play.

Play Is Active, not Passive

Play is an active state. When kids play they think, move, act, sing, talk, jump, run, and interact. Even if they are playing alone they are actively and presently engaging in their game.

During playtime, play is what’s happening. They are learning, building their decision-making skills, learning about cause and effect, and activating their imagination.

A new and ever-growing body of research shows that we use our brain while young “solidifies” as we get older. This means the brain remembers the most used pathways, and those become the “default.” In these early years, it’s imperative we let our kids play.

We give them opportunities to actively engage their minds, not just passively. Of course, there’s a place for being entertained, but the amount of entertainment received shouldn’t be comparable to the amount of play they enter in.

Play Builds Skill by Experience

I love letting my kids go out and play; they learn many things. They learn that shoveling dirt onto other’s heads is all fun and games until someone shovels dirt on your head. The other morning the kids were outside playing.

They were standing inside this massive tractor tire, holding hands, and walking around in circles singing “ring around the rosies.” When they finished, instead of falling, they’d climb up on the tire and walk around it balancing.

While playing kids may learn to build things, balance, practice their problem-solving, think of new alternatives when Plan A is foiled, build their fine and gross motor skills, absorb information by reading, build their interpersonal and relational skills, learn to handle disappointment, and many other things. People remember situations they’ve lived through personally.

Entertainment may seek to teach these lessons, but if a child does not have ample time to put these concepts into practice, the lessons learned won’t stick. This is, ahem, why math homework exists.

There are certain activities teachers or parents may do with kids that do teach skills and have an end goal in mind, and these are great! But a parent’s job is to give kids the opportunity and materials to learn, and then let them go.

Play Is Fun, but not Addictive

There’s also an increasing body of literature suggesting that screen time (just one form of entertainment) is not only a hindrance to proper development, but it’s also addictive. Of course, this is abundant screen time, not an hour or so a day.

Still, I don’t think this was a shock to too many of us. I myself find that if I don’t leave my phone in another room that I will reach for it for no reason. Then, once I’ve got it, I’ll check Facebook or Instagram or whatever else I don’t really care about just because. And that’s just screen time.

When you turn off the TV, do your kids fight it? Is their first instinct always to reach for the tablet or turn on the TV? Quick tip: if so, why not add in more time for free play in their day and let the screen time be an extra.

Play Helps Kids Think for Themselves

Kids who never learn to play on their own or entertain themselves will always be beholden to a source of entertainment. Trust me, this is not good. If they make friends who are ready and willing to guide them into some fun activity, they may go along with it.

If they make friends who are ready and willing to guide them into some fun activity, they may go along with it. Kids who aren’t confident in their own ability to be “okay” with themselves will always need the attention of others, and I don’t think any of us want that.

Play, on the other hand, activates the imagination and thinking of kids. I believe we all really want our kids to think for themselves. To at least pause before acting, and let their consciences and minds have a chance to send up warning flags or bells. The more a child is used to making decisions, and dealing with the repercussions of their decisions, the more mature they’ll be.


With all of that being said….

There is still a place for both play AND entertainment in the lives of children. There aren’t ballets, operas, broadway shows, movies, and albums for nothing. People do enjoy being entertained, and it can truly be relaxing at the end of a busy day.

So, again, I’m not advocating for an entertainment-free lifestyle (it is just not super realistic in this day and age), but simply a balanced view for our children’s day to day lives, where play is prioritized more often than entertainment.

They’ll always be entertainment, but there won’t always be true play in your kid’s world. I mean, isn’t true play what makes childhood great anyway?