Katie Hurley, LCSW

Worry-Free Kids

New AAP Report Recommends Prescription for Play

Pediatricians encouraged to prescribe play for healthy child development.

Posted Aug 22, 2018

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels
Play helps children work through stress
Source: Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

Play might seem like something kids (of all ages) do to pass the time and have a little fun, but play has benefits that reach beyond smiles and laughter. Play is actually important work, and children learn, grow, and thrive through the context of play.

I’ve been “prescribing” play for almost twenty years in my work with children, adolescents (yes, even teens need to “play”), and families. Sadly, childhood and adolescence continue to experience an alarming and unhealthy trend: Unstructured play and downtime are consistently replaced with adult-directed activities, packed (and overwhelming) schedules, and increased screen time to cope with the stress that inevitably results from over-scheduling. As a result, kids are stressed, anxious, and even depressed. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ new clinical report titled, “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children” is a call to action to educate families about the healing and protective powers of play. The report recommends that all pediatricians tell children (and their parents) that playing with parents and other children plays a critical role in healthy development, building essential life and social skills, and reducing stress. 

In my first book, The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World, I detail both the importance of play for healthy child development and ways to increase playtime for kids of all ages. A mistake I see over and over again is that the moment a child expresses an interest in an activity, be it a sport, and instrument, or something else, it becomes the primary focus for the child. 

Unstructured play, the kind where kids call the shots and play on their own terms, boasts many developmental benefits. Check out a few of these reasons to make more time for play on a daily basis:

•    Increased problem-solving skills
•    Increased social skills such as turn taking, listening, and collaboration
•    Empathy development 
•    Self-expression
•    Working through fears, stress, and anxiety
•    Feelings identification
•    Language development 
•    Higher level thinking
•    Symbolic representation
•    Physical strength
•    Bravery 
•    Creative thinking 
•    Assertiveness
•    Coping with negative emotions

In a world where kids are running on stress and turning to devices to tune out the stress around them, the healing powers of play can’t be overstated. Through play, children work through complex emotions, practice resilience and coping, and decompress. In short, they work through their stressors, as opposed to avoiding them or internalizing them. This is the best medicine for kids under stress.


Play builds connections.
Whether kids are engaged in play with their parents, siblings, or other kids, time spent playing is time well spent. Through play, kids build relationships with others, learn to assert themselves with siblings and peers, work through conflict in a healthy way, and strengthen their bonds. 

Kids have a strong inclination to play, and often they want to spend that precious playtime with their parents. While this can feel like a burden to exhausted caregivers, it’s important to remember that play offers a unique window to your child’s soul. When kids invite their parents to play, they let them in and share their inner worlds with them. It’s invitation to connect and to relate on a deeper level.

Play heals emotional wounds.
Kids experience stress. It might seem like childhood is fun and carefree, but stress among children and adolescents is growing. Play helps children work through stress, anxiety, anger, sadness, and other negative emotions and experiences. 

Through play, children learn to label and verbalize their emotions, cope with overwhelming emotions, and process their experiences. A child who was rushed to the hospital following an accident, for example, might use play to review and process the event and focus on recovery from it. 

Play improves overall functioning.
From social interaction skills, to emotional health, to academic skills, unstructured play is the key to helping kids thrive in a modern world. When our kids are lost in play, they establish organic friendships and build important social interaction skills together. They help each other process and work through feelings and develop empathy and compassion. More often than not, they practice academic skills by way of using words, rules, and even numbers through higher-level complex play.

Have you ever watched a group of kids open a pretend restaurant? Together they create menus, think about price points, assign tasks and roles, and find customers. Through pretend play, children create mini constructs of the world around them and prepare for their futures.

Play is the language of children. Slow down and promote play. Your children will be better for it.  

References

Michael Yogman, Andrew Garner, Jeffrey Hutchinson, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, COMMITTEE ON PSYCHOSOCIAL ASPECTS OF CHILD AND FAMILY HEALTH, COUNCIL ON COMMUNICATIONS AND MEDIA, "The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children," Pediatrics, From the American Academy of Pediatrics, August (2018).

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