Over the last few weeks I’ve been reviewing studies involving children and play. “Shocked” and “disturbed” are the best two words that describe how I feel when I read those reports. Every study has one conclusion: Good old-fashioned play is becoming an endangered pastime for today’s kids. Worse yet, play is not only disappearing from our homes and neighborhoods but in our schools as well. Here are just a few facts:
- Since the late 1970s there’s been a 25 percent drop in free play
- In the same time there has been a 50 percent drop in unstructured outdoor activities while at the same time kids spend in organized sports have doubled and the number of minutes kids devote each week to passive leisure, not including watching television, has increased from 30 minutes to more than three hours
- The average[i] U.S. child is now “plugged-in” to some kind of digital device–not including cell phone and text–71/2 hours a day
- More than 30,000 schools across the United States have cut recess[ii]
The loss of play and even skepticism about its value may be partly due to a more competitive, “no-child left untested era” (don’t get me started on that one…), our increasingly hurried, quicker-pace life style, and the belief we have to schedule our kids with activity after activity to stretch those IQ points. Whatever the reason, today’s kids are playing less and many experts are crying, “Foul!” with good reason. Dozens of studies prove that play is not just a luxury but essential to our children’s healthy development.
11 Scientific Benefits of Play for Kids
We’ve always known that “kids and play” are just a natural combo. But new research also shows that letting kids engage in self-directed play has immense value for their social, emotional, cognitive and physical growth. Here are just a few of the proven scientific benefits[iii] of getting messy and doing something besides clicking those darn keypads and video controllers and doing paper and pencil tasks:
- Play expands our kids minds and neurological development: Self-initiated play improve skills such as guessing, figuring, interpreting and is important to brain development and learning
- Play boosts children’s creativity and imagination. Play gives children the chance to invent, build, expand, explore and develop a whole different part of the brain.[iv]
- Play stretches our children’s attention spans: Playing outdoors just 30 minutes a day increases child’s ability to focus and pay attention.
- Play and rough-housing boost boys’ problem solving abilities: The more elementary school-boys engaged in rough-housing, the better they scored on a test of social problem solving.[v] (Don’t ya love that one!)
- Play boosts self-confidence and self-regulation: Kids learn to become masters of their own destiny without an adult directing, pushing, managing or scheduling
- Play forges friendships, strengthens social competence and teaches social skills:Undirected play allows kids to learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, communicate and develop core social skills they need not only now but for the rest of their lives.
- Play helps kids learn to enjoy just being in their own company, entertain themselves and develop identity: Ease that guilt when your kid says, “I’m bored, Mom!”
- Play reduces children’s anxiety and diminishes stress: A study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry shows that play is also critical for our children’s emotional health because it helps kids work through anxiety and reduce stress.[vi]
- Play creates joyful memories of childhood: Come on, no kid is going to remember the car pools and worksheets but the swings, jumping in leaves, playing leapfrog in the mud, blowing bubbles, building forts.
- Play boosts physical health and reduces risk of obesity: Henry Joseph Legere, MD, author of Raising Healthy Eaters points out: “Rises in screen time have led to the rise of a sedentary lifestyle for our children. In 1982, the childhood obesity prevalence in the United States was actually less than 4 percent. By 2004, that number had grown to about 30 percent.”
- Play builds new competencies, leadership skills, teaches lifelong hobbies, and develops resilience: “Play is what allows kids to manipulate their environment,” says a report written by Kenneth Ginsburg, M.D. of the AAP, “And how you manipulate your environment is about how you begin to take control, how you begin to develop your senses, how you view the world.[vii]”
But there’s more: Child-driven play also improves our parent-kid relationship.[viii] Play offers a wonderful opportunity for parents to see the world from our children’s eyes as well as strengthen our relationship when we join in. Playing with our kids is one of the few times when clocks stop and stress fades. There’s no judgments, schedules or time constraints that worry us. It’s just a glorious opportunity to give our kids our full presence, be in their space and enjoy each other’s company, and build those wonderful childhood memories.
So parents, spring is here. Flowers are blooming, grass is back, snow is thawing (finally!), and mud puddles are popping up. Why not just this week push the pause button and tune into your kids’ schedule? Here is your quiz:
How much are your kids plugged into some kind of a digital device?
How often are they glued to that TV or clicking that keypad?
How much free time do they have (unscheduled, unsupervised)?
How often do they go outdoors to just decompress?
Do your kids know how to entertain themselves and enjoy the great outdoors?
How do you respond when they get messy? (Just asking…but remember letting your kids get messy every now and then is actually a great way to teach them that nobody’s perfect, accidents do happen, and teaches them to enjoy themselves and their own company).
Let’s remember: Play is an essential — not a luxury – for our children’s well-being. Thirty years of solid child development research confirms that play is crucial for our children’s social, emotional, physical and cognitive growth. So check into your kids’ lives and make sure at least a bit of “free time” is a part of their waking hours.
And aren’t ya glad it’s finally spring!!!!
RESOURCES: For those of you searching for the hard-core proof, here is just a sample of the research:
[i] US kids now plugged into some kind of digital device about 7 and a-half hours a day. Study by Kaiser Family Foundation Nov, 2009.
[ii] Play disappearing from homes, schools and neighborhoods: D. Elkind, “Can We Play?” Greater Good, Spring, 2008, p. 15.
[iii] K.R. Ginsburg, M.D., “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” Pediatrics, Vol. 119, No 1, Jan. 2007.
[iv] Boosts creativity: Based on classic study published in Developmental Psychology 1973. Cited by M. Wenner, “The Serious Need for Play,” Scientific American Mind, Jan 28, 2009, http://ww.sciam.com/article.cfm?id+the-serious-need-for-play?print=true
[v] Play fighting improves problem solving: M. Wenner, “The Serious Need for Play,” Scientific American Mind, Jan 28, 2009, http://ww.sciam.com/article.cfm?id+the-serious-need-for-play?print=true.
[vi] Stress relief: cited by M. Wenner, “The Serious Need for Play,” Scientific American Mind, Jan 28, 2009, http://ww.sciam.com/article.cfm?id+the-serious-need-for-play?print=true Study cited in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
[vii] Ginsburg: The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds
[viii] Play improves parent-child relationship: K.R. Ginsburg, M.D., “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” Pediatrics, Vol. 119, No 1, Jan.
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