Play for play's sake

October 12, 2006

It seems so obvious: Children need free time to play or engage in unstructured activities as part of their overall healthy development. But the American Academy of Pediatrics thinks families have become so caught up in busy lifestyles or the pressures of academics that they've forgotten the importance of free play time, especially for young children. In a report released this week, the academy rightly tries to refocus their attention.

The academy's study as well as other research shows that play helps children develop creativity and imagination, physical and emotional fitness and sometimes a greater capacity to learn. Through play, children can also become more adept at socializing, resolving conflicts and figuring things out for themselves. Such positive results have prompted the promotion of more play not only by pediatricians but also by the National PTA, which has launched a campaign to restore recess time that has been cut by many schools in favor of more instructional time, and by health groups trying to combat childhood obesity.

The simplicity of play often conflicts with the modern realities faced by working parents and single-parent families who might overschedule kids in an effort to give them all sorts of enriching experiences or don't dare let them play unsupervised in certain neighborhoods out of fear for their safety.

At the same time, computers, video games, cell phones and other technologies allow youngsters to spend hours engaged in play or talk that involves little physical exertion and artificial social interaction. And academic pressure - from the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind law to the need for students to master a variety of skills to impress college admission officers - is another factor that undermines play and can lead to stress and depression, according to the academy report.

To avoid some of these dire consequences, pediatricians should re-emphasize the value of toys such as blocks and dolls that engage a young child's imagination more actively. They should also remind parents that the old chestnut "quality time" doesn't necessarily mean time spent making sure kids are kept busy in one structured activity after another, but time that allows children to play freely, develop their own hobbies and interact with parents and other family members. The academy report is a pointed reminder that what kids often need most is balance.

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