Why Parents Should Encourage Their Teens To Play More

Play helps adolescents figure out their identity, passions, and interests—and protects their mental health.

By Kathi Valeii

Parents are generally aware of the importance of play for younger kids. But when kids hit the tween and teen stage, it can be confusing to know what play looks like because kids of this age don’t engage in “play” the way younger kids do. Even though play changes as kids grow, people of all ages benefit from play, including and especially teenagers. 

Hilary Conklin, Ph.D., a researcher, and professor in the Department of Teacher Education at DePaul University in Chicago, says play for teens can be both different and the same as for younger kids. 

“It’s often defined by something where you have choice in what you’re doing, and you’re guiding your own work, you’re guiding your own activities,” she says. In addition, she says play for teens usually involves some sort of creative or imaginative element. When engaged in play, teens typically feel joyful and engaged.

Read on to learn how play changes in adolescence, how teens benefit from play, and how parents and caregivers can support and encourage play for their teens.

How Play Changes in Teenage Years

Teenage brains are growing and changing rapidly, says Ken Ginsburg, M.D., MSEd, founding director at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication and author of Congrats—You’re Having a Teen! He says adolescence is about asking the fundamental question, ‘who am I?’ and answering other questions like, ‘am I normal?’ and ‘how do I fit in?’ This brain development and self-inquiry make play a critical tool during adolescence. 

Sometimes they need permission to be silly again. — HILARY CONKLIN, PH.D.

While teens are probably no longer playing fairy princesses or engaging with a play kitchen, Dr. Conklin says there are still elements of dress-up and pretend play that teens often crave. For example, teens enjoy Halloween and costumes, and many video games or role-playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), involve elaborate imaginative play scenarios that can be really engaging for them.

What Does Play Look Like In the Teen Years?

Teen play may be formal or informal, directed or self-directed, in or out of the classroom. Some examples of teen play include:

Dr. Ginsburg says teens benefit from adult-driven, organized activities, and they also need downtime to fill with things they like doing or subjects they want to explore. “If they’re only participating in adult-directed activities, whether that’s at school or on the playing field or in activities, they might lose the chance to figure out how they want to contribute to the world,” he says. 

That said, adult-directed activities are a healthy way to model rules and boundaries so that teens have a healthy framework from which to develop independently-led fun.

Benefits of Play for Teens

Since adolescence is a time of rapid brain development and self-inquiry, play can help teens grow and discover things about themselves. “It’s a time where people can figure out who they are and where the opportunity to stretch in different directions really builds intelligence,” says Dr. Ginsburg. He adds that playfulness doesn’t go away in childhood; creativity is just as important in adolescence and into adulthood. 

Further, play allows people to mess up and recover and learn how to do better next time, says Dr. Ginsburg. “It allows us to use our imagination to build solutions. All of these things are really big benefits,” he says.

Mental health is another benefit of play for teens. A 2011 article in the American Journal of Play evaluated the decline of play and the rise of mental health issues in adolescents. It noted that as play declined, instances of depression, anxiety, suicide, helplessness, and narcissism increased.

Play Promotes Mental Health

Research found that play can have a positive impact on kids’ mental health by helping them to:

  • Develop interests and competencies
  • Learn to make decisions, solve problems, exhibit self-control, and follow rules
  • Learn to regulate emotions
  • Make friends and get along with others
  • Experience joy

How to Encourage Play in Teens

Teens feel the tension of being pulled toward adulthood while also wanting to regress toward childhood, so Dr. Conklin says one thing adults can do is model vulnerability and playfulness. “I think sometimes it’s like they need permission to be silly again,” she says. When parents are willing to engage with teens in play—whether it’s building a goofy gingerbread house or decorating cupcakes or other artistic things—it can go a long way in encouraging mutual vulnerability in teens. 

In addition, parents can offer up raw materials and the time and space to use them. “I think one of the things that’s happening so much these days in an economically privileged set of parents, there are so many kids who are highly scheduled with lots of activities, and often what kids really need is a little downtime,” says Dr. Conklin.

At the end of the day, play will look different from teen to teen. That’s because teens are growing into unique individuals with varied interests. So, now’s a great time to experiment with new things and offer opportunities catered to their developing passions.