Dr. Elise Herman
As a pediatrician, I often tell parents that with the exception of books (which are free from the library), they have everything they need within them to raise a happy and healthy child. Reading to your child, getting outside, and playing cost nothing, are technology – free, fun and easy.
Play in particular is generating a lot of interest right now; it has been shown to promote brain development as well as social and emotional well-being. ‘Unstructured’ play (no adult control or directing) allows kids to explore their world, try on different roles and work through their fears. Kids learn how to interact in groups, lead and share, and resolve conflicts, thereby developing vital positive behavioral skills. This type of play encourages creativity and experimentation. It also helps kids work on their “executive function” which is important with decision making and controlling impulsivity. There is evidence that neural pathways in kids’ brains are enhanced through the skills that develop with unstructured play.
Of course the physical benefits of playing including running, jumping, throwing, climbing, etc., are obvious. Playing outside offers even more benefits. Kids tend to burn more calories playing outside than inside, important in our current fight against childhood obesity. Fresh air and contact with nature are helpful in reducing stress levels. Research has shown that kids who play outdoors regularly tend to stick with tasks longer, be more curious and self-directed.
Quite simply, then, play is crucial to child development and learning. Unfortunately, play is threatened on a variety of fronts. There is increasing pressure on children (even kindergartners) to perform academically, and school days can be packed with ‘orderly activities’ with less time for unstructured and especially outdoor play. Many school districts have decreased the amount of recess time as well as PE. The draw of passive entertainment (TV, computer, you tube, video games) is such that the American kids age 5 to 16 spend an average of 6 ½ hours a day in front of a screen, much of it on personal devices such as tablets and smart phones. These personal devices mean kids are usually by themselves without parental involvement—not ideal. Unstructured play is getting squeezed out by this, and our children are the worse for it.
In general, children seem to have a lot more scheduled activities in their increasingly busy days, leaving less time for unstructured play. Between sports, music, etc. parents often feel they hardly have enough time to meet for dinner with their children (but please make time for those family meals!). So how to make time for this important activity? Something may have to give for your child to have the recommended minimum 60 minutes a day of unstructured play, but keep in mind that the benefits of this type of play are many and long lasting. And although unstructured play means you won’t be directing the play, you can still be involved – just let your child lead. Good for everyone!
*Opinions expressed by KVH Contributors are their own. Managed by Kittitas Valley Healthcare, HealthNews does not provide medical advice. For medical advice, please see your healthcare provider.