Last week when I called my kids down for breakfast, they didn’t want to come. They had pulled out all of their stuffed animals and were completely absorbed in pretend play. So I brought up some food and listened in:

The Kindergartner: "Bad news. Every watering hole is dried up. But we must never give up!"

The 8-Year-Old: "First we must rest! We haven't slept in five weeks."

The Kindergartner: "Okay, a one hour nap — but then we move on before we lose more animals."

The play continued for hours. At one point, I overheard them talking about a group of "lost ones," assorted animals who had survived earthquakes, volcanoes and other catastrophes. One bunny doctor cared for the whole group. They also had an “empathist” owl (“You know, mommy, someone who makes you feel better when you are sad.”) The story finally ended with the animals embarking on a journey to find a beautiful, safe new home.

The next day, they moved on to a game they called “germs,” which began with a stuffed puppy who didn’t wash her hands or cover her cough and got the rest of her friends sick. The day after that, the storyline involved a hospital for pets (with some amazing, no-nonsense teddy bear nurses). And yesterday, they told me that they are going to start “homeschool” for their stuffed animals and teach them how to read, write and sing.

I am relieved to see them playing like this.

Since their toddlerhood, I’ve watched my kids use imaginary play to process events in their life. My daughter had a host of imaginary friends as a 3-year-old while my son preferred to use toy figurines and stuffed animals. After going to the doctor for shots, I would hear them play-acting “doctor.” When they started preschool, they often acted out recess drama with their stuffies. And after watching a new movie or show, those characters would often enter into the play.

In the last couple months, a lot has changed for my kids — and probably for your kids, too. School is out. They haven’t left the neighborhood in weeks. They sometimes see their playmates down the street, but we wave from a distance. They have lots of questions about the coronavirus. And when a dear relative passed away the other week, instead of traveling to be with family, we made cards and talked to loved ones over the computer screen.

It’s no surprise that these life changes have found their way into their imaginative play. And it’s also no surprise that they beg my husband and me to play games with them every night — from card games to board games to dance-offs. They suddenly want to “hide and seek” around the house at bedtime (I am always “it”). They really want us all to play together.

The Protective Power of Play
Child development experts tell us that play is an essential part of childhood. It’s not frivolous. It’s not an extra. Play supports kids’ cognitive, social, emotional and character development. It strengthens their language and executive function skills. And it strengthens their emotional bonds to the people they play with.

In this global health crisis, here’s what parents need to know: when children experience stress and adversity, play becomes more important than ever.

Pretend play is a key way children process emotions and events. And researchers have found that the joy children experience when they play with their caregivers helps them regulate their brain’s stress response. Making time for play can help our children navigate stress, experience joy and build resilience.

Playtime can include:

Unstructured Play Time: Sometimes the best thing parents can do is get out of the way and let kids run on imagination. A few dress-up clothes, a couple of stuffed animals, some random sticks in the backyard or a big empty box can turn into just about anything. Some kids like to build storylines from books, movies or TV shows. They might join the Kratt Brothers on an animal adventure, become an Odd Squad detective, or travel to a place featured on Let’s Go Luna! When they have space and downtime choose their own storylines, kids can tap into their imagination and internal world, working through ideas and situations they find confusing, exciting, funny or compelling.
Play with Caregivers: When kids play with their parents, it strengthens family bonds and relieves tension and anxiety. According to researchers, this kind of play can help “build the safe, stable and nurturing relationships that buffer against toxic stress.” As child psychologist Katie Hurley recently told me, “Play is how kids connect at all ages. It's a reason teenagers will say, ‘Dad, would you shoot hoops with me?’ And it's a great stress relief for adults, too.” Follow a child’s lead in the play — and perhaps introduce them a few favorite games of your own.
In the last couple months, we have played card games and board games; made forts out of pillows and blankets; drawn hopscotch with chalk; and designed obstacle courses around the house. Oh and dance parties. Lots and lots of dance parties. It turns out that watching me try to dance to their favorite songs is endlessly entertaining.

And if I am ever worried that playtime is taking away from “learning time,” I remember these words from Fred Rogers: “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.”