I feel like it’s pretty common for people to discount play—thinking that it’s cute, maybe fun, but not vitally important or a truly profitable use of anyone’s time, regardless of age.

As child life specialists, we can talk about play and its importance . . . but how often do we also fall into the same routine of prioritizing so many other things over a play intervention? Whether due to factors outside or inside of our control, we tend to easily diminish the value of play by shortening the time we spend utilizing it. It becomes easy over time to gradually start to dismiss and even forget its value.

I know this because I’ve seen it happen in my own life and practice. Our culture’s lack of play is unfortunately contagious. But sometimes, there is a moment where we get the opportunity to be truly present and catch a glimpse of the power of play. It’s in those moments that I believe we realize that play, which can be so easily brushed off as inconsequential, really is vitally important.

I had some of these impactful moments during my first disaster relief deployment with our partner Children’s Disaster Services in 2013. I had been a child life specialist for just over 10 years at the time and had many stories I would share with students about the power of play. I thought I knew it all! But I didn’t realize until that deployment that I had only begun to scratch the surface of the depth of the power of play. On deployment, I was completely blown away by the play I was a part of. At times, I was speechless. Not to be overly dramatic or anything, but it felt like these kids held the keys to deep processing and growth that adults struggle to grasp. One of many examples was when the kids had a moment of high energy and began to bend and tear the large cardboard box “houses” they had spontaneously created just hours before. My teammates and I made sure the kids were safe during this moment and in the end, we noticed that the children had formed a mirror image of the rubble outside with the bits of cardboard. The process of that was “just play” to any passerby, but to the kids, it was clearly much more. I was awe-struck and fascinated, but more than that—I was honored to be with the kids as they took their play to those deep and meaningful places over and over again.

Life remains busy and I still find myself inhibiting my ability to truly enter into play.  But one of the gifts of our work in the disaster relief field is the opportunity to fully submerge ourselves into this play.  It’s vitally important for the kids we are seeking to help and it’s deeply valuable for us as well.

-Katie Nees, Director of Child Life Disaster Relief