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That old adage has just received the support of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in a statement deploring the loss of recess in many American schools and advocating the restorative function of free play in children's lives ("The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds," prepared by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, and the AAP Committees on Communications and Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health and available at http://www.aap.org/).
The AAP is not talking here about schools giving more time to physical education-although that is probably a good idea, too. The issue is the under-appreciated value of free, unstructured play for a child's healthy development.
"Play is so important to optimal child development," the report points out, that "it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights as the right of every child."
The benefits of play are many, the report continues.
"Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue."
Contemporary American children who are not given the opportunity to play are, in a real sense, deprived. In its report, the committees acknowledge that children living in poverty or in war-torn parts of the world also have urgent, unfulfilled needs for play, and promise to address their plight in a future document. But for middle-income American youth, putting play-time back in the school and home environment is an attainable and worthwhile goal. This year's campaign by the National Parent Teachers' Association, Rescuing Recess, is a welcome first step that deserves the support of the pediatric community.