The Power of Play with Children

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Play. It’s something that children are supposed to do with unbridled abandon, from the time they’re born until the responsibilities of adulthood are eventually thrust upon their shoulders. But increasingly, the pressure to grow up is arriving almost as soon as they enter the world—if not before.

“Parents feel compelled to play Mozart to wombs, convinced that listening to such music in infancy will enhance later mathematical ability,” notes Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, a psychiatrist in Greenwich, Conn., faculty member at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and coauthor of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap . “Children are tutored for nursery school ERBs [educational records bureau tests], and to have an advantage later, they are ‘redshirted’—repeating kindergarten so they are among the oldest in the grade.”

Why have we become so fixated on academics and overachievement? Some suggest it began with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. “Many school districts responded by reducing time committed to recess, the creative arts and physical education in an effort to focus on reading and mathematics,” notes Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, associate professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and author of A Parent’s Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2011). Indeed, studies find that time for play in older grades is vanishing and being replaced by rote lessons and standardized tests.

Meanwhile, parents feel an immense pressure to pack their preschoolers’ schedules with activities from swimming to soccer, gymnastics to German lessons, and to purchase products that drill children on everything from ABCs to 123s. “These tools and programs are heavily marketed, and many parents have grown to believe that they are a requirement of good parenting and a necessity for appropriate development,” Ginsburg notes.

Then there’s the prevalence of electronic media luring little ones into sedentary pursuits. “There is ample evidence that this passive entertainment is not healthy and, in fact, has some harmful effects,” says Ginsburg. It’s all added up to a world without free, imaginative play—something so critical to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.

Why Play Matters

For starters, play boosts physical activity levels and, consequently, health and fitness. “The rough and tumble of active play is a natural preventive for the current epidemic of childhood obesity,” notes Ginsburg. It also builds a better brain. “Studies have found that children who engage in dramatic games of make-believe develop stronger language skills, better social skills and more imagination than children who do not play in this way,” says Joan Almon, executive director of the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit partnership of educators, health professionals and other child advocates in College Park, Md.

This type of play also helps children develop resilience by allowing them to use their imagination to deal with and recover from challenges, says Ginsburg. “For example, they conquer fear by becoming superheroes and use creativity to derive solutions,” he explains. Meanwhile, in 2009, the journal Pediatrics published a groundbreaking study of 11,000 third-graders that found more recess was equated with improved behavior and learning.

As for the race to academic achievement? No Child Left Behind has not quite had the desired effect, with America’s “adequate yearly progress” falling to a record low in 2011. Finland, on the other hand—where children go to playful kindergartens and enter first grade at age 7 rather than 6—consistently gets the highest scores on the respected PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) exam. What’s becoming painfully clear is that a lack of play can have dire developmental consequences. Some research even suggests a connection between childhood play deprivation and homicidal behavior later in life.

Restoring Balance

All of this is not to say that structured activities and lessons have no place in a child’s life. “Organized sports are great for teaching children skills like working memory and self-regulation, collaboration and critical thinking—and appropriate competition is healthy as well,” notes Susan Magsamen, director of interdisciplinary partnerships at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Brain Science Institute in Baltimore, Md. “The best thing about sports is keeping our children active, but we have to remember that it is supposed to be fun.” The same goes for other enrichment activities—all of which should, ultimately, offer opportunities to learn within the context of fun and exploration. Here are six ways to ensure more play. 

Let them unwind

When you see other kids being shuttled from one class to another, it can be tempting to pack your own child’s schedule as well—but moderation is a good idea in all things, including extra-curricular activities. “Some families make firm rules such as one sport per child per season, while others make decisions on a case-by-case basis,” says Rosenfeld. “Weigh the benefits of participation against the cost—time, energy, logistical effort, stress and expense—to you, your child and the rest of the family.”

Ideally, let children have a say in what they want to explore rather than dictating the types and amount of activities. “It’s always best to follow a child’s lead and interests, but at 4 or 5 or 6, they may need to be exposed to several activities to see which one appeals to them,” notes Rosenfeld. If, at any time, a class or an activity becomes a source of stress or anxiety, dig into any underlying issues. “Signs that a child is overscheduled or not playing enough may include trouble eating and sleeping, gnashing his teeth, not being able to play independently or initiate play himself,” Almon notes. “Children actually use play to work through stress and anxiety—and by the time they’re 4 or 5, usually can play independently, for an hour or more, on a daily basis.”

Release the reins

Of course you want to protect your child, but if you control every move, they can still get hurt—developmentally. “An exaggerated safety focus of children’s play is problematic because … they might need challenges and varied stimulation to develop normally, both physically and mentally,” noted Norwegian researchers in a recent Evolutionary Psychology article.

So yes, keep them off precipitous mountaintops and away from sharp objects, but try not to freak out when they decide they want to plunge down the giant slide at the county fair or even (gasp!), play tag on a concrete sidewalk that hasn’t been padded like most of today’s indoor (and even outdoor) playgrounds.

And instead of worrying about what a mess they’re making by tearing up the couch cushions to build a fort, provide a space and materials that don’t matter and give them the freedom to do it their way.

Likewise, resist the urge to instruct kids on how to do everything. In a study published last year in the journal Cognition, when researchers presented preschoolers with a toy, the more operational instructions they gave, the fewer new discoveries the children made about additional ways to use and play with it. “Ideally, much of play involves adults, but when play is controlled by adults, children acquiesce to adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership and group skills,” says Ginsburg.

Also, resist buying toys that do all the work for the child. “Simple, inexpensive toys, such as dolls, jump ropes, blocks, balls and buckets are more effective in allowing children to be creative and imaginative than more expensive toys, which can make play a more passive and less physically involved experience,” Ginsburg notes.

Ease up on electronics

The AAP discourages more than an hour of screen time a day for children over the age of 2, citing research associating media use with obesity, sleep issues, aggressive behaviors and attention issues. But kids aren’t going to tune out if you’re still plugged in. So don’t just tell your child the electronics are off-limits—use them less frequently yourself. “Make TV shows or video games into special activities, rather than time fillers that become daily habits,” advises Almon.

When you do turn on a show or game, select those that are educational and entertaining, interactive and engaging. Once you feel that your child has had enough screen time for the day, have a box of special toys or games sitting nearby—and when he (or you!) feels like tuning in, open up the box and create your own show instead.

Take them out

According to University of Michigan researchers, the average American child spends just four to seven minutes engaging in unstructured outdoor play each day—yet studies have found that playing outside is associated with lower levels of childhood obesity, optimal vitamin D levels (which translates to better brain and physical health), fewer ADHD symptoms, improved long-distance vision, even higher standardized test scores.

“Parents are so proud that their children know all the names of the animals of the world—but do they know the names of the animals in their own backyard?” asks Almon, who recommends outdoor activities such as feeding the birds or lifting up rocks to observe the bugs beneath. “Start with the things that are close to home—look up the names of the flowers that your child can actually see growing or the stars they see when they step outside at night,” Almon says.

These types of playful outdoor experiences open up a whole world of learning and wonder at which books and lessons only hint.

Explore the educational options

Certain types of schools tend to be much more experiential than others, says Almon, who notes that five in particular put a lot of emphasis on hands-on activity:

“Plenty of other preschools and kindergartens are fighting to keep play-based programs in place, too, even if they aren’t formally associated with one of these labels,” notes Almon. You just need to, well, do your homework before deciding which one will meet your child’s needs—but ideally, whichever one you select will encourage learning through play and provide activities that go beyond core subjects like math and reading and include the arts, music, creative projects and recess.

Act for play

Pushing for more play has become a full-fledged movement that needs the full participation of every parent. “Share the evidence with other parents, teachers, school officials and policymakers about how important it is for children to have recess and other free, creative activities built into the school day,” says Almon.

If you don’t have well-maintained parks and play areas nearby, start lobbying for them. If safety is a concern, band together with other parents and law enforcement officials to step up the monitoring of public spaces.

The more parents push for play, the better the chances that children will once again be allowed to be children. If you’re still on the fence about whether or not play is really that important, just imagine a world without creative minds, leaders and innovators—the Steven Spielberg’s, Steve Jobs’s and Mozarts in the making—and, for the love of childhood, act accordingly.

The key to raising a smart, successful child lies not in technology, structured activities and rigid lessons, but in allowing plenty of time for imagination, creativity and exploration.

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