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“We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing” (George Bernard Shaw).

Play is frequently valued as being beneficial for young children with less recognition for the continuing and evolving benefits for young people. Play is often mistakenly seen as something that children should grow out of as they get older, leading to young people being given less opportunities to play and more emphasis on the ‘seriousness’ of preparing for adult life. However, play continues to be important throughout the lifespan, particularly during adolescence. Play is fundamental for learning and development with multiple evidence based benefits for physical health and well-being. Play is recognised as a right for children and young people up to the age of 18 in article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Adolescence is a period of dynamic change involving rapid brain development and self-discovery. These changes enable young people to explore and adapt to their shifting inner and outer worlds. The physical, social, cognitive, and emotional experiences young people have during adolescence shape their brain development, affecting the structure and function of their neural networks. Playing promotes the development of synapses, the connections in the brain. Synapses are lost when they are used less frequently, whereas synapses that are used regularly continue to develop.  Increased activity in the brain during adolescence leads to heightened sensitivity to rewards which can result in impulsive behaviour and thrill seeking but can also in different settings promote positive peer influence and behaviour. Playing enables the release of endorphins which enhances the sense of well-being.

Through playing young people discover their interests, identity and where their competencies and natural abilities are. Playing enhances creative thinking, problem solving, independence, perseverance and decision making. It offers opportunities to develop flexibility and adaptability within different social environments and supports the growth of empathy and self-regulation of emotions.

Lack of opportunities to play, especially freely chosen play, can have a damaging effect on the lives of young people. It limits their opportunities to be creative, use their imagination, be physically active and have fun, for its own sake. Playing has positive impacts on mental health. The rise in mental health issues in young people such as anxiety and depression has been observed parallel to the decline in opportunities for free play. Adults need to be enabling and supporting adolescents to have the time, space, and permission to freely play.

Julia Sexton (Trustee of Pitsmoor Adventure Playground)

Play Wales have also published information about Teenagers and Play which can be read here: https://play.wales/play/teenagers-and-play/