Hide-and-seek play: benefits and risks

By Sarah Earles, MS, LPC, NCC | September 14, 2022

Hide-and-go-seek. It is a classic children’s game that most kids play at some point in their lives. Is it tradition to play the game, or is it something more? Is it just for friends and family, or can it be therapeutic? And is hide-and-go-seek always an appropriate game? The play itself may be simple but hide-and-go-seek might mean more than people think.

The earliest documentation of the game comes from the second century (Augustyn, 2020). Since then, versions of this game, where one individual hides until another person finds them, have been observed all over the world. The play, therefore, seems to be, at the least, a non-verbal form of communication.

Hide-and-seek presents in different forms based on age and setting. With babies, it may be peek-a-boo. With teens, it may be the more social form of hide-and-seek called sardines (Icebreakers, n.d.). Across these stages of development, hide-and-seek can provide important physical, mental, emotional, and social opportunities. In babies, it can help with hand-eye coordination (Tiny Toes Day Nursey, 2016) and visual tracking (Jirakarn, 2021). In mobile children, the movement of the game provides exercise that helps stretch and strengthen growing bones, muscles, and tissue (Jirakarn, 2021). Hide-and-seek helps with working memory, and imagination (Jirakarn, 2021; Whittier, 2021). Emotionally and socially, hide-and-seek helps with object permanence, the idea that people still exist and are there, even if not in direct sight (Brennan, 2021). Hide-and-seek can help people feel wanted (Tiny Toes Day Nursery). If played with others, it can promote cooperation and patience. As if these are not already reasons enough to play hide-and-seek, the game can have psychological and therapeutic benefits as well.

Hide-and-seek contains many relational elements. There are pursuit and withdrawal (de Bruin, McMains, & Brubacher, n.d.). There are secure base and exploration (Vollmer, 2009). Participants practice separation and reunification. Healthy, successful hide-and-seek play can promote dynamics of secure attachment such as seeking proximity to attachment figures (de Bruin, McMains, & Brubacher). Hide-and-go-seek can reassure children that they are loved and their parents take pleasure in playing with them. Given these characteristics, hide-and-seek can be tailored as a therapy intervention, both at home and in a therapy office.

However, hide-and-seek, in its traditional form, may not be appropriate for all children. Children who come from hard places, who have been neglected, abandoned, and abused, may not tolerate hiding because of the memories it triggers (Thomas, n.d.). In these cases, hiding may prompt survival responses rather than playfulness. This is not to say that children from hard places can never play the game, but rather that parents and caregivers should use caution and care. They might what to consult with a therapist about how to introduce this form of play in safe ways. Hide-and-seek can perhaps be scaffolded in the office, to extend to further, less structured use outside the home. The goal of play is enjoyment, not harm.

Hide-and-seek, in its play form, has many benefits. In its symbolism, it has many more. Adults should pay attention to this play of children and facilitate its healthy use where possible. The benefits are probably more than meets the eye, and in fact, may help propel relational healing.

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Hide-and-go-seek. It is a classic children’s game that most kids play at some point in their lives. Is it tradition to play the game, or is it something more? Is it just for friends and family, or can it be therapeutic? And is hide-and-go-seek always an appropriate game? The play itself may be simple but hide-and-go-seek might mean more than people think.

The earliest documentation of the game comes from the second century (Augustyn, 2020). Since then, versions of this game, where one individual hides until another person finds them, have been observed all over the world. The play, therefore, seems to be, at the least, a non-verbal form of communication.

Hide-and-seek presents in different forms based on age and setting. With babies, it may be peek-a-boo. With teens, it may be the more social form of hide-and-seek called sardines (Icebreakers, n.d.). Across these stages of development, hide-and-seek can provide important physical, mental, emotional, and social opportunities. In babies, it can help with hand-eye coordination (Tiny Toes Day Nursey, 2016) and visual tracking (Jirakarn, 2021). In mobile children, the movement of the game provides exercise that helps stretch and strengthen growing bones, muscles, and tissue (Jirakarn, 2021). Hide-and-seek helps with working memory, and imagination (Jirakarn, 2021; Whittier, 2021). Emotionally and socially, hide-and-seek helps with object permanence, the idea that people still exist and are there, even if not in direct sight (Brennan, 2021). Hide-and-seek can help people feel wanted (Tiny Toes Day Nursery). If played with others, it can promote cooperation and patience. As if these are not already reasons enough to play hide-and-seek, the game can have psychological and therapeutic benefits as well.

Hide-and-seek contains many relational elements. There are pursuit and withdrawal (de Bruin, McMains, & Brubacher, n.d.). There are secure base and exploration (Vollmer, 2009). Participants practice separation and reunification. Healthy, successful hide-and-seek play can promote dynamics of secure attachment such as seeking proximity to attachment figures (de Bruin, McMains, & Brubacher). Hide-and-go-seek can reassure children that they are loved and their parents take pleasure in playing with them. Given these characteristics, hide-and-seek can be tailored as a therapy intervention, both at home and in a therapy office.

However, hide-and-seek, in its traditional form, may not be appropriate for all children. Children who come from hard places, who have been neglected, abandoned, and abused, may not tolerate hiding because of the memories it triggers (Thomas, n.d.). In these cases, hiding may prompt survival responses rather than playfulness. This is not to say that children from hard places can never play the game, but rather that parents and caregivers should use caution and care. They might what to consult with a therapist about how to introduce this form of play in safe ways. Hide-and-seek can perhaps be scaffolded in the office, to extend to further, less structured use outside the home. The goal of play is enjoyment, not harm.

Hide-and-seek, in its play form, has many benefits. In its symbolism, it has many more. Adults should pay attention to this play of children and facilitate its healthy use where possible. The benefits are probably more than meets the eye, and in fact, may help propel relational healing.

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