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Say Yes to Play

Kids’ bodies, brains, creativity, friendships, and resilience thrive on play.

Source: Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen/Flickr
Kids at play
Source: Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen/Flickr

Play is not only important for physical development and as a way to have fun, but play builds children’s brains, and gives them the tools they need for coping and resilience in a rapidly changing world. Pulling together a considerable body of evidence, the American Academy of Pediatrics is now recommending that doctors write prescriptions for play because it is so important to all aspects of children’s development.

What is play?

There are many definitions, but most experts agree that play is voluntary, fun, and spontaneous; it entails active engagement; and while it includes experimentation, risk-taking, and boundary-testing, play is buffered from serious real-world consequences.

Why is play so important?

1. Play stimulates language development. Play motivates babies and young children to master language, which forms the foundation of further learning. Through play, children try out new vocabulary, and develop their communication skills.

2. Play improves executive functioning and cognitive control. Play improves children’s attentional control, emotion self-regulation, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. Conversely, play deprivation has been linked to the increasing prevalence of attention problems.

3. Play supports problem-solving skills. Play gives opportunities to practice and hone many skills required for living in a complex world, including co-operative problem-solving.

4. Play stimulates curiosity, imagination, and creativity. Memory and learning are motivated by curiosity and imaginative engagement.

5. Play builds a healthy body. Playful physical activity reduces children’s stress, fatigue, injury, depression, and obesity, while increasing their strength, dexterity, co-ordination, and confidence.

6. Play enhances caregiver/child relationships. When parents or other caregivers play with a child, they experience an attunement and harmonious interaction that is not only good for each participant, but also enhances bonding, affection, and trust.

7. Play builds social-emotional intelligence. Play helps children learn how to interact happily and productively with others, how to share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, and advocate for themselves.

8. Play supports a sense of agency. Unstructured play—where adults avoid giving instructions—helps children take control of their own actions and decisions.

9. Play helps children find their interests and passions. Kids involved in imaginative play are discovering what they like doing, and what they want to learn more about. The children’s singer Raffi wrote, “Play is the way kids try the world on for size and imagine their place in it.”

10. Play buffers toxic stress. Play reduces children’s anxiety and helps them cope with stressful circumstances. This is true for all children, and is especially important for those who experience more stress in their lives, have attention problems, or are prone to anxiety.

11. Play counteracts academic overload. Play-based learning environments are as academically effective as traditional school environments, but have all the additional benefits listed here of enhancing social-emotional, problem-solving, physical development, etc.

12. Play is essential for learning 21st century skills. The new information economy demands more innovation and less imitation than ever before, more creativity and less conformity. To thrive in tomorrow’s fast-changing world, today’s children need to play.

What should parents do to encourage play?

1. Listen, watch, and enjoy. Early learning is fundamentally social, and you will enhance your child’s pleasure in being playful just by being present and engaged and delighted with their discoveries and achievements.

2. Look for simple toys. Give your child the tools to invent their own fun: blocks, dolls, balls, paper and crayons, and access to household stuff like pots and pans and pillows. Let your child make a costume box of discarded clothes, hats, shoes, and pieces of fabric.

3. Avoid giving instructions. Try not to give too many comments or suggestions, other than encouragement. And don’t overdo that—too much encouragement robs a child of a feeling of ownership.

4. Take them outside. Kids are calmer, more optimistic, healthier, more creative, and more academically successful when they spend time outside. Outdoor playtime expands their imagination, stimulates their senses, and frees their spirit.

5. Help them be active. Children need an hour a day of strenuous physical activity. Babies and toddlers need more, in smaller doses. Take walks, go swimming or skating, go to a playground, take a hike in the neighbourhood, play ball together, or go for a bike ride.

6. Monitor technology use. Too often, technology encourages passivity and the consumption of others’ creativity. Some technology can be good, but too much reliance on media robs children of time better spent in active, social, and inventive play.

7. Include other children. When there aren’t any adults telling them what to do, kids playing together learn how to decide what they want to do, negotiate the rules, choose roles, communicate effectively, and make sure everyone is included.

8. Blast open your child’s schedule. Do-nothing times can be the most productive periods of all; boredom can be a catalyst for reflection, decompression, self-discovery, self-regulation, and creativity. Give your child ample unscheduled time.

9. Be playful. Look for ways to be playful in daily family life. When everyone’s feeling frayed and grumpy is a good time for a three-minute dance break. You can rotate who gets to choose the music.

10. Turn daily chores into opportunities for play. Play and playfulness have more to do with attitude than activity. With flexibility, humor, and creativity, making a meal, cleaning up, or taking out garbage can be fun. If you can’t figure out how to make it happen, your child can help.

11. Minimize commuting time. One reason most kids don’t get enough play and outdoor exercise is the time they’re spending in cars and buses. Look for schools and extracurricular activities they can walk to, or a minimal commuting distance away.

12. Advocate for play-based learning. Play-based learning in the early years (up until age seven or so) is more effective than didactic learning in long-term learning outcomes. So, share this blog and other resources (many of which are listed below) with your child’s caregiver, daycare provider, pre-school or school teacher.

References and Recommended Reading

Want Creative, Curious, Healthier Children with 21st Century Skills? Let Them Play,” by the American Academy of Pediatrics

The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children,” by Michael Yogman, et al.

The Joy of Discovery and the Power of Play,” by Carole Charnow and Michael Yogman

The Importance of Play,” by Karen Bilich

"Toddlers Need at Least 3 Hours of Physical Activity a Day," by CBC News

Why Play is Important,” by Raising Children Network

10 Reasons Why Play Is Important,” by the National Literacy Trust

Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivate Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play, by Mitchel Resnick

6 Ways to Protect Our Child’s Playtime,” by Andrea Nair

Does Nature Make Us Happy?” by Marilyn Price-Mitchell

Children and Nature: Helping Kids Connect to Life Mysteries,” by Marilyn Price-Mitchell

How Nature Makes Kids Calmer, Healthier, Smarter,” by Laura Markham

Physical Activity Tips for Children,” by the Government of Canada

Outdoor Fun Is Good for Kids and the Planet,” by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Are your kids getting enough free play time?” by Katie Hurley

Keep It Simple! 3 Parenting Tips for a Healthy Life Balance,” by Dona Matthews

How to Ruin Children’s Play: Supervise, Praise, Intervene,” by Peter Gray

Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming,” by Jerome Singer, Rebecca McMillan, and Scott Barry Kaufman

Play! Run! Skip! 20 Ways to Keep Kids Active,” by Dona Matthews

Too Busy to Play? Six Ways to Push Back for Healthy Balance,” by Dona Matthews

Play Outside! Twelve Ways to Health, Happiness, Creativity, and to Environmental Sustainability,” by Dona Matthews