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Playing is more than just a way to distract your kids while you get things done around the house. It’s a deeply embedded human instinct that arises in all children and play serves purposes beyond just having fun, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. They recently released an updated report on the importance of play in the development of little ones and their research has yielded some interesting findings.

From building appropriate socio-emotional bonds to fighting stress—yes, your kids feel stress, too!—play is a productive use of time for your youngsters—and even for you. Here are six ways that play helps to enhance your child’s development, as well as the reason it’s essential for you to be part of it.

Play helps fight stress.

As the American Academy of Pediatrics points out, less play can equal more stress for your child. Why? It has to do with the complicated process in the brain that signals stress. Play can essentially short-circuit stress by preventing a child’s brain from sending out the warning signals that stress is coming. The same goes for adults—and all intelligent living creatures—so joining in with the play may help your stress levels, too.

Play gives their communication skills a boost.

Kids who engage and interact with other people are much more prone to develop excellent communication skills than those who sit in front of a screen and rarely make a peep. So although it may be tempting to plop your child down with the iPad after a long day of work, fight this urge if you want them to be a good communicator. Instead, play a game or engage in a bit of make-believe.

Play creates leaders.

Most forms of interpersonal play require someone to step up and take charge. This is the child who imagines the castle, with himself as the king or chooses to play the matriarch in a game of “house.” The choice to lead may seem like a rather small thing, but it can translate into something bigger down the road. Kids who learn how to take the reigns when they play at a young age may be quicker to volunteer to lead groups in school or eventually lead a team in their chosen career.

Play fosters friendships.

Children don’t have the benefit of a shared work experience or happy hour to help them build relationships with other people. What do they have? Recess. Most children don’t really care if they have anything in common with their friends, as long as said friends can play a good game of make-believe. So when you play with your kids at home, you’re setting them up to be more social at daycare, school or in any other setting where they have the opportunity to interact with their fellow youngsters.

Play gives them groundwork and lays down the foundations.

Kids aren’t just learning how to communicate and socialize when they play, they’re learning about the world. Have you ever wondered why young children choose to play “house” or “doctor”? These games represent the people and the environments they’re becoming familiar with and by play-acting in a similar setting, they can explore different parts of each.

Perhaps playing “doctor” helps alleviate the anxiety your child feels over receiving a shot because they’ve given themselves more time to adjust to the pretend “doctor’s office.” Or, maybe playing “house” could help them sort through issues with siblings. Encourage this type of make-believe exploration.

Play brings you closer to your kids.

Adults can take advantage of the same benefits play has on the brain for children—especially if it’s active play. Just like running gives you a “high” of endorphins, chasing your little one around releases the same chemicals that boost your mood. What’s more, since you’re also engaging with your child, the act of play brings you closer together and bonds you. So, spending time being active with your kids is much more worthwhile than a single session at the gym, in reality!

If you’re trying to come up with new ways to play with your kids, one place is always a great option: the playground. Bring your kids to the playground and engage in some basic games to get them moving and having fun. Run around the equipment playing tag. Encourage them to go down the slide or attempt the monkey bars without your help. Practice counting and identifying colors. The possibilities are endless in this kid-friendly setting.

Now that you understand why play is so important, it might be a little easier to drag yourself away from the screen—with your kid in tow—and spend some time exercising your imagination. Whether you make the trip to the playground or you simply sit on the floor and play with Legos, the social interaction and cognitive stimulation can help your child develop into a happy, healthy and balanced adult.

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