Do you remember those lively dodgeball games during recess? What about freeze tag, kickball, Four Square or climbing on the jungle gym? Many parents today likely have great memories of running around outdoors during school recess. And, chances are pretty good that once you got home from school, you played outside after finishing your homework. However, that is not the case for many children in 2018, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is concerned about the impact that lack of play is having on children.
In a recently-released clinical report, the AAP states that the most powerful way children learn isn’t only in the classroom or libraries, but rather on playgrounds and in playrooms. The importance of playful learning for children cannot be overemphasized.
Experts define play as an activity that is fun and engaging, which could define a number of activities. But the difference in play and other activities is that play has no set outcome, no score to achieve and nothing to produce. It’s just good, old-fashioned fun.
"We're recommending that doctors write a prescription for play, because it's so important," says pediatrician Michael Yogman, M.D., lead author of the AAP report. "Play with parents and peers is fundamentally important for developing a suite of 21st century skills, including social, emotional, language and cognitive skills, all needed by the next generation in an economically competitive world that requires collaboration and innovation. The benefits of play cannot really be overstated in terms of mitigating stress, improving academic skills and helping to build the safe, stable and nurturing relationships that buffer against toxic stress and build social-emotional resilience."
Research indicates that family playtime enhances communication and tends to create a positive environment. Another benefit of letting the child direct the playtime is that it can help parents learn their child’s areas of interest.
Through the years, children’s playtime has been threatened, especially as schools have removed recess from the schedule in an effort to focus more on academics. A national survey of 8,950 preschool children and parents found that only 51 percent of children walked or played outside once a day with a parent. Additionally, surveys have found that as many as 94 percent of parents have safety concerns about outdoor play.
No one will be surprised to know that technology also impacts play. According to media research, the average preschooler watches 4.5 hours of television a day, which is associated with greater risks of obesity. If you factor in the time that kids of all ages spend on their personal devices, and it’s easy to see that playing outdoors has been replaced with screen time. And, it’s not just preschoolers who are living a sedentary lifestyle.
"Media use such as television, video games, smartphone and tablet apps are increasingly distracting children from play. It's concerning when immersion in electronic media takes away time for real play, either outdoors or indoors," says pediatrician Jeffrey Hutchinson, M.D., a co-author of the report.
The report encourages educators, pediatricians and families to advocate for and protect unstructured play and playful learning in preschools and schools because of the numerous benefits it offers in all areas of life and development.
If play isn’t something that comes naturally to you, here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Have a water fight with buckets, squirt guns and the hose.
- Build a fort in your back yard or with the furniture and sheets in your family room.
- Blow bubbles.
- Visit a children’s museum.
- Make chalk drawings on the sidewalk.
- Rake the leaves into big piles and jump in them.
- Go for a walk in the rain and stomp in the mud puddles.
- Play with Play-Doh.
- Build something out of Legos.
"The next time your child wants to play with you, say yes. It's one of the best parts of being a parent, and one of the best things you can do for your child," Dr. Yogman says. "Play helps children learn language, math and social skills, and lowers stress. Play is important both for children and their parents since sharing joyful moments together during play can only enhance their relationship."