Building Connections Through Play

The following excerpt is from Why Play Works: Big Changes Start Small by Jill Vialet and appears here courtesy of publisher Jossey-Bass. The book is designed to support schools, educators, and parents in promoting play as an essential tool to help children learn to manage risks, develop greater self awareness, and build confidence while strengthening social connections.

Power of Play

Why Play Works cover

One of the most important things the extended youth development community agrees on is that caring adult relationships significantly contribute to young people’s well-being—academic, behavioral, and psychological. Although a web of these relationships is ideal, research suggests that even just one consistent relationship with a caring adult has a dramatic impact. In their book Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks, authors Julia Freeland Fisher and Daniel Fisher conclude, “Nothing has more impact in the life of a child than positive relationships.”

It’s worth taking a moment to consider who that adult was for you: A  teacher? A coach? A parent? A cousin? There are people who significantly influence our life trajectory, and understanding how this happened for ourselves is a great place from which to start in imagining how we might have that kind of influence in the lives of others.

Adults have the potential to play many different roles in our children’s lives. They may be teachers, mentors, coaches, cheerleaders, as well as sources of accountability and standard bearers for community expectations. The degree to which adults are able to positively fulfill any of these responsibilities is in direct proportion to their ability to relate. Building an authentic relationship that is consistent and caring between an adult and child requires breaking down the inherent power dynamic.

That sounds so serious and yet it is easy to do by playing together. Consider these aspects of play and how they connect to building relationships:

  • Play is low stakes. Kids and adults alike can enter a game of Four Square knowing that it is just a game; we’re playing for no purpose other than to have fun. We can relax in that environment and let go of what the grown-ups might otherwise want the children to accomplish, changing the dynamic of the relationship.
  • We can broaden our roles by playing. We can let go of the official roles we play in the world and just be participants in a game of Wall Ball. That experience is shared and our sameness as players blurs the lines of our differences in age and experience.
  • Play is the original amateur activity. Very few of us are world champions at Band Aid Tag, whether we are 6 or 60 years. That means we are able to share an experience in a similar way, not as experts trying to impart our knowledge from one to the other.

Kids know they have mastery at play. Creating room for a child to be great at something, like hopping to the finish line while the adult struggles more, gives that child a chance to see that adult in a new light. If the adult is willing to look silly doing something, the child might imagine being able to trust them in more serious moments.

People rely on community to make sense of the world around them. For better and worse, we incorporate the responses of others in modulating our own responses, and we internalize the feelings and reactions of others in determining our own attitudes. The dramatic events of 2020 and the ensuing limitations on direct human contact have made the importance of school and workplace culture more evident than ever. In the absence of direct contact, we fill this vacuum with virtual connection, and in the current age of social media, that means amplifying echo chambers.

The impacts of COVID-19 have not been experienced equally. For some students it has resulted in serious academic losses; other students—typically those from more resourced families—have managed to stay on track. Similarly, some students have experienced the pandemic as a period of profound play deprivation, and others have had more access to unsupervised play than ever before.

Although the impact of the traumas experienced from the loss of loved ones and heightened economic and food insecurity will inevitably be significant as schools reopen and into the future—for students and staff—it is hard to anticipate how the social impacts of isolation and lost opportunities for play and social connection will manifest.


We Find Connection through Play


Photo by Atoms on Unsplash

Play is how we learn to navigate the complexities of social connection. By enabling us to build the foundations of trust and empathy, the experience of play is one of the best ways to learn the skills of being an engaged participant in a democracy—a changemaker who has the confidence to take action when she sees something that she can do to make the world a better place, who has the capacity to collaborate with others that enables success, and who has the confidence that her voice will be heard. These experiences also contribute to the resilience needed to handle the challenges of disconnection.

Developing positive relationships requires strong social skills, and strong social skills require the opportunity to practice and make mistakes and learn. Play is an essential opportunity for students to master the competencies of social-emotional learning: self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Developing this set of skills is how we learn to navigate social connections.

Social connection shows up most visibly in schools in the sense of community—how do the students, staff, and families interact inside and beyond the classroom? One of the things that often surprises people is how the experiences on the playground have such an outsized impact on the larger school climate. When things are going poorly out at recess, it follows the students back into the classroom—and into the hallways and the library and the cafeteria and onto the school bus. But when things are going well—when students feel like they get to choose what they are going to play, that they have the tools and permission to resolve their own conflicts, that they understand the rules and feel confident that their peers will also follow them, and that, if not, there is a caring and consistent adult who will help set things right—that collective goodness spills over into the entire school day.

Small Start

Building community requires that we get to know one another, and play is one of the most effective ways to make that happen. To this end, the game I Love My Neighbor (known as Move Your Butt when played with older youth and Stand Up when played with adults in an auditorium) is a great way to help a group of people quickly and easily get to know one another. When playing with younger students you need a cone for all but one of the participants, arranged in a big circle so that players standing and touching  their cone with their foot can see everyone else. The one participant without a cone stands in the middle and he or she completes the statement “I love my neighbor who ” with something that is true about themselves, such as “I love my neighbor who has a dog.” All players for whom this statement is true have to leave their cone in search of a new cone—the cone immediately next to you is not an option—and whoever ends up without a cone is now in the middle and makes the next “I love my neighbor” statement.

If there is a tie when reaching a new cone, students use Rock- Paper-Scissors to determine who stays at the cone. For older students you can change the sentence from “I love my neighbor. . . .” to “Move your butt if  … ”

And for grown-ups in an auditorium, I often invite the audience to get to know each other a little bit—and to be reminded of what it feels like, even fleetingly, to play—by modifying the game to Stand Up. As in, “Stand Up if you have any Justin Timberlake music on your iPod or MP3 player …”



Jill VialetJill Vialet is the co-founder of Oakland’s Museum of Children’s Art and the founder of Playworks, a national nonprofit committed to bringing out the best in students by leveraging the power of play. In 2006, Jill was a Fellow at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (better known as the dschool), and as a result co-founded Substantial to redesign the way that schools and districts recruit, train, and support substitute teaching. She is the author of the middle grade novel, Recess Rules and the nonfiction books Why Play Works: Big Ideas Start Small and Substantial Classrooms: Redesigning the Substitute Teaching Experience, which she co-authored with co-founder Amanda von Moos.


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