The Vital Role of Play for Children

By Renée Layman, LMHC, President and CEO

Play is not just a fun pastime for children; it's a fundamental part of childhood that shapes development across multiple domains. From fostering social skills to enhancing cognitive abilities, play serves as a cornerstone in nurturing healthy growth and well-being in children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics stresses the importance of play in strengthening the parent-child bond and for children living in poverty. Information from Harvard Center on the Developing Child  underscores the significance of play in supporting responsive relationships, strengthening core life skills, and reducing sources of stress.

Play Supports the Development of Healthy Relationships

Play plays an important role in supporting healthy, responsive relationships and promoting Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) which research shows can mitigate the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma. Play provides a natural avenue for children to form connections with caregivers, peers, and their environment.

Through play, children learn to communicate, collaborate, and negotiate with others, laying the foundation for healthy relationships later in life. As children engage in self-directed, imaginative play they develop empathy and self-regulation skills—essential for building strong and supportive bonds with others.

Strengthening Core Life Skills

Play is also instrumental in strengthening the core life skills related to success. Whether it's building towers with blocks, playing dress up and role-playing, or engaging in physical activities, play offers opportunities for children to develop essential cognitive, motor, and socio-emotional skills.

Research shows that play-based learning experiences are linked to improved problem-solving abilities, creativity, and self-confidence. By engaging in play, children explore, experiment, and learn from their experiences, honing skills that are essential for navigating life's challenges.

Play Reduces Stress

The past few years have caused significant stress and anxiety for children and their families. In the face of a children's mental health crisis, we need to find effective ways to reduce stress. Play serves as a natural stress reliever, offering children a safe space to express themselves, release tension, and process difficult emotions. Parents can support children by 'directing' some of the play through the toys offered. For example, if your child gets anxious about going to the doctor, a doctor’s kit and toys can help them express and work through feelings.

Unstructured play promotes stress reduction by activating the brain's reward system and lowering cortisol levels, the stress hormone. By engaging in play, children can escape from daily pressures, recharge their minds, and develop resilience in the face of adversity.

 At Center for Child Counseling, play is at the foundation of our work with children. Our staff have ongoing training in Play Therapy and we are credentialed through the Association for Play Therapy, which sets the national standards for training and practice.

For children who may not be able verbally express abuse or trauma, toys become their words. Through play, children give us a glimpse into their world, work through problems, develop healthy coping skills, and heal after traumatic experiences.

Play Resources for Parents and Caregivers

As parents, caregivers, and educators, it's important to recognize the importance of play in children's lives and prioritize opportunities for unstructured, imaginative play in their daily routines. By embracing play as a vehicle for learning and growth, we can empower children to reach their full potential.

We have developed an array of resources to support parents and adult caregivers of children. Through Ways to Play, we offer practical information and strategies to promote play that nurtures positive relationships, resilience, and well-being.


Lead the Fight attracts community leaders from 23 states and 11 countries


February 25, 2022
For immediate release
Media contact: Cara Scarola Hansen
Center for Child Counseling Public Relations Counsel

Lead the Fight, ACEs event, attracts community leaders from 23 states and 11 countries:
Author Juleus Ghunta and UNICEF’s Benjamin Perks advocate for giving children with trauma a voice

Lead the Fight, Giving Children with Trauma a Voice, took place Tuesday, February 22, 2022–hosted by Palm Beach County non-profit Center for Child Counseling (CFCC). The event featured a virtual book reading of Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows: A Story about ACEs and Hope and conversation with author Juleus Ghunta, as well as the keynote address given by Benjamin Perks, head of Campaigns and Advocacy at UNICEF. Ashley Glass, co-anchor of CBS12 News This Morning, emceed the international event which brought together community sector leaders from 23 states and 11 countries around the globe to learn, strategize, and take action to end child abuse and neglect.   

The event opened with Glass laying the foundation of the American Academy of Pediatrics defining adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma as “the Public Health issue of our time”–further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite ACEs being the root cause of many crises our communities face–gun violence, domestic abuse, overflowing jails, homelessness, child abuse, addiction, chronic disease, and mental illness–the event gave the more than 270 registrants hope.

“We are here tonight to talk about solutions–ways we can Lead the Fight…Adversity doesn’t mean a death sentence. With the help of a caring community, resilience grows and builds through each adverse outcome…Know your role in creating trauma-informed communities: be a buffering influence in the life of a child who needs you,” stated Glass. 

Renée Layman, chief executive officer of CFCC, followed with her rally cry, “We don’t have to wait for a child to fall apart before we do something….As mental health professionals, we can’t do it all…We need to figure out collectively how to build the capacity of our community to affect mental health.”

In Perks’ keynote address, he explained the importance of connection, not as a luxury but part of our evolutionary biology, and how human beings are dependent on adults for longer in the life cycle than any other species: “We depend on [adults] for three things–for love, for nurture, and for protection. We have a biological need to be loved…it’s there from day one.”

He continued to explain the need and importance of buffering adults in children’s lives: “Every child needs a champion who will be there for them no matter what, to form a deep connection and hold them up to the highest standards and help them to achieve those standards. We live in a world powered by the love of teachers, caregivers, and parents, but we also all too often take that for granted and fail to invest in it. Connections with them are the vaccines against and the medicine for adverse childhood experiences and having the power to break intergenerational trauma.”

Perks championed the idea that communities need to do more to protect vulnerable children than to exploit them. 

Following Perks address, Ghunta answered questions related to his personal and difficult journey with adverse childhood experiences and the inspiration for his new book, Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows: A Story about ACEs and Hope. Ghunta described the book as coming from a “very deep, deep place inside of me…this is a book about my life, my story, my experiences as a survivor of about 18 adverse childhood experiences.”

Ghunta then delivered an animated and heartfelt reading of Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows which highlights the need to find transformative ways of engaging with perpetrators of ACEs and the role families and communities can play in helping survivors develop resilience and hope. 

As part of Center for Child Counseling’s mission to build playful, healthful, and hopeful living for children and families, the agency is educating adult caregivers to build their capacity to implement effective strategies to promote resilience and help children. CFCC developed ‘Lead the Fight’ in 2016 to bring awareness to system leaders around fighting childhood adversity with advocacy and action. In 2021, the event was transformed into a virtual action series in response to the pandemic and the urgent need to move forward policies and practices that support children’s mental health and resilience. 

“For the 2022 launch, we are incredibly grateful to Ben Perks and Juleus Ghunta for leading the fight against ACEs and sharing their poignant reflections and experiences related to childhood trauma and adversity with our global community. And we thank Ashley Glass for lending her voice and joining the fight to help tackle the effects of ACEs. It’s imperative that we continue to share the message that children thrive when they have regular interactions with responsive, caring adults. Therefore, we have to continue to make the adults in our neighborhoods, schools, healthcare, and community center ACEs- and trauma-aware, so they can buffer the adversity children experience at home, preventing further harm,” reflected Layman. 

By using a virtual platform to host the event, Ghunta joined from Japan, Perks from New York, and Glass from Florida. Attendees also participated from Aruba, Bermuda, Canada, Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United Kingdom.

For more information on joining the fight and helping tackle the effects of adverse childhood experiences, visit


Juleus Ghunta is a Chevening Scholar, children’s writer, a member of Jamaica’s National Task Force on Character Education, and an advocate in the Caribbean’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) movement.

Ghunta holds a BA in Media from The University of the West Indies, Mona, and an MA in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford. His work explores the links between toxic stress and academic underachievement. His poems and essays on ACEs have appeared in 30+ journals across 16 countries. His picture book, Tata and the Big Bad Bull, was published by CaribbeanReads in 2018, and he is the co-editor of the December 2019 and March 2020 issues of Interviewing the Caribbean (The UWI Press), focused on children’s literature and ACEs in the Caribbean. Juleus’ new book, Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows: A Story About ACEs and Hope, was published by CaribbeanReads on December 31, 2021. His Notebook of Words and Ideas, which features prominently in Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows, will be published by CaribbeanReads in 2022. 


Benjamin Perks is the Head of Campaigns and Advocacy in the Division of Global Communications and Advocacy  at the United Nations Children’s Fund, based in New York. He leads on public and policy advocacy on issues related to the survival, development and protection of children. He is a member of the Policy Advisory Group on the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children and serves on a number of other bodies.

In personal capacity, he is Senior Fellow at the Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham in the UK, which researches education policy on character, social, and emotional development of children. He holds a master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Kent at Canterbury and has recently completed a mid-career program with the Harvard Graduate School of Education on Leadership and Education Reform.  He is recognized as a public speaker, blogger, and influencer on violence against children and adverse childhood experiences. His TedX talk on Adverse Childhood Experiences can be found here. Perks can be followed on twitter and his blogsite.


Ashley Glass, a highly-regarded journalist with almost two decades of experience as an anchor and reporter, is the weekday co-anchor of CBS12 News This Morning 4:30-7 am, and CBS12 News at 9 am and noon. She has previously worked in Tampa, Springfield, IL and Gainesville. Ashley has covered many significant news events, is a champion for small businesses, and produces and presents regular special reports on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on children’s mental health and other timely issues. She graduated from the University of Florida with honors and dual degrees in Telecommunication-News and Political Science. Ashley has two daughters and loves living in Palm Beach County. 


Partnership sponsors who are leading the fight and made this important and necessary panel conversation possible include: First Republic Bank, WPEC CBS 12, Children’s Services Council Palm Beach County, Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart ShipleyWard Damon Attorneys at Law, and Premier Pediatrics.

CFCC’s Fighting ACEs initiative to build trauma-informed communities is made possible with the generous support of Quantum Foundation, Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties, and private donors.


Click here to view the full recording of the “Lead the Fight 2022” event.


Epigenetics and ACEs

Reading the word “genetics” in the title of an article fills most of us with dread. We won’t understand it. We don’t even remember the basics from school. Genetics is such a complex field of study that it won’t make sense to us. But please read on because the possibility of a connection between genetics–or, more accurately, epigenetics–and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) could uncover startling revelations about how we should be raising our children.

Let’s start at the beginning. Genetics is a branch of biology concerned with the study of genes, genetic variation, and heredity—or the passing on of traits from parents to their offspring—in living organisms.

For many people, knowledge on the subject is limited to a few simple facts:
1.)  We all have genes that we got from our parents.
2.)  Genes carry our inherited information or genetic code.
3.)  Genes are responsible for characteristics like eye color, height, hair color, etc.
4.)  Genes also account for less tangible traits like whether we will be susceptible to certain diseases, or even if we will be optimistic and resilient, or prone to
alcoholism or depression.

Some of us may remember a little more of what we learned in high school science class, but here are the basics:
•  Human cells can house about 25,000 – 35,000 genes, which are carried on structures called chromosomes.
•  As a human being, you have 23 pairs of chromosomes (46 total) – half from your mother and half from your father. Your genetic makeup is determined
when your father’s sperm fertilizes your mother’s egg at conception to produce the materials needed to make a new, unique individual – you!
•  Each gene on the chromosomes has a function. The DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) in a gene spells out specific instructions—like a cooking recipe — for
making proteins in the cell.
•  Proteins are the building blocks for everything in the body from bones to muscles to blood. Proteins help our bodies grow, work properly, and stay

Genetic processes don’t occur in a vacuum, however. They can be greatly influenced by our environment and experiences which, in turn, can affect our development, decision-making, social-emotional wellness, and behavior. But how much of who we are is due to our genetic code and how much is the result of how and where we were raised and by whom? This is often referred to as the nature versus nurture argument.

Identical Twins and Nature vs. Nurture

Consider the example of genetically identical twins separated at birth and raised in different homes. One child ends up in a chaotic, insecure environment where he suffers ACEs and trauma. The other child grows up surrounded by love and kindness; he is provided with close personal bonds, diverse opportunities, and encouragement. While the nature of the identical twins might be genetically determined to be equal, the nurture component is clearly different. The child raised in the austere, uncertain climate may develop at a slower rate and have greater difficulties in school and life than the nurtured twin. The toxic stress associated with his ACEs has delayed his cognitive and behavioral development, disadvantaging him from birth.

How much of who we turn out to be is the result of genes and how much is the result of our environment is an age-old debate that has not yet been settled. Most scientists accept that both nature and nurture are at play in all human development. There is, however, a growing body of research that suggests a great deal of who we are is up to our genes. Genetics is an incredibly complex (and often misunderstood) field of science and breakthroughs are made every day. Decoding who we are and what kind of lives we will lead is a great mystery, one of the last great frontiers of human exploration and discovery.

The Concept of Epigenetics

Let’s take the concept one step further into the realm of epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of cellular and physiological phenotypic trait variations that are caused by external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off and affect how cells read genes instead of being caused by changes in the DNA sequence. Huh? That may sound like gobbledygook to most of us, but it simply means that while the field of genetics looks at the expression of the genetic code, epigenetics studies factors that influence the expression of the gene.

Research in the area of epigenetics has concluded that during early life, the environment we live in can affect the way our genes are expressed.
So, environmental factors like security, bonding, and love can alter how our genes switch on and off, or simply operate. Differing genetic expressions can occur without causing any changes (or mutations) to the underlying genes themselves. In essence, the environment we experience, especially when we are young, can affect which of our genes are active (or expressed), and which remain dormant (or unexpressed).

The Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

This is why we are discussing epigenetics in connection with ACEs. Because, increasingly, research seems to bear out the fact that the toxic stress of ACEs might not only be experienced by an individual but could also be transmitted from one generation to the next at a genetic level. In very simplified terms, it may be possible to pass on trauma to our children and grandchildren, making the implications of ACEs more devastating and far-reaching than we ever imagined.

Some researchers who have studied historic periods of trauma like the American Civil War or the Holocaust now suspect that abuse, neglect, deprivation, and trauma can impair the functioning at some level of future generations who may not even be living in the same adverse circumstances.

Experiments with Mice and Scent

Controlled experiments in mice have allowed researchers to begin to understand the epigenetics of ACEs. A 2013 study found that there was an intergenerational effect of trauma associated with scent. Researchers blew acetophenone – which smells like cherry blossoms – through the cages of adult male mice, zapping their foot with an electric current at the same time. The mice learned to associate the smell of cherry blossom with pain. Shortly afterwards, these males bred with female mice. When their pups smelled the scent of cherry blossom, they became jumpier and more nervous than pups whose fathers hadn’t been conditioned to fear it. To rule out that the pups were somehow learning about the smell from their parents, they were raised by unrelated mice who had never smelt cherry blossom.

The grand-pups of the traumatized males also showed heightened sensitivity to the scent. Neither of the generations showed a greater sensitivity to smells other than cherry blossom, which indicates that the inheritance was specific to that scent.

The science is far from definitive however. Many studies are currently underway and several alternate theories of if and how this is possible are still being debated within scientific circles. One thing is certain: Epigenetics is going to reveal many secrets in the coming years.

Consequences and Hope

The good news is that intergenerational transmission of trauma seems to happen infrequently. The story of human history is rife with trauma. If the transmission of that trauma was inevitable, all of us would be riddled with crippling health issues and developmental delays, and yet most of us are not. Protective factors that seem to mitigate or even prevent transmission in many people are clearly at play. Again, how and why this happens is not fully understood.

Still, the idea that we may be passing on the effects of trauma is a weighty one.

If this is the case, it should change the way we live our lives. Our parents’ and grandparents’ experiences should suddenly take on new relevance to us. Knowing that the consequences of our own actions and experiences could have long-term implications for the lives of our unborn (and yet to be conceived) children should dramatically alter the choices we make. It might even influence how seriously we, as a society, take violence, abuse, trauma, and mental health.

All these possibilities make it more important than ever before that we value and nurture ourselves and protect our mental and emotional wellbeing. ACEs and trauma are not a predetermined route to a disastrous life, they are simply warning markers along the way that encourage us to be self-aware, surround our children and ourselves with buffers, and practice resilience skills and self-care.

“There’s a malleability to the system,” says Brian Dias, researcher at Emory University and the United States’ Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and author of the 2013 controlled epigenetics study in mice. “The die is not cast. For the most part, we are not messed up as a human race, even though trauma abounds in our environment. [I believe that], in at least some cases, healing the effects of trauma in our lifetimes can put a stop to it echoing further down the generations.”

Our goal should be healing the effects of childhood trauma now, so that even the possibility of passing it on to future generations is minimized. As a community, let’s all focus on trying to achieve that.

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