Spread the word: Youngsters need more play!

October 9, 2006

A new clinical report released today by the AAP declares that free and unstructured play is essential for a child’s healthy cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development.

Oct. 9-Atlanta-A new clinical report released today by the AAP declares that free and unstructured play is essential for a child’s healthy cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development.

Addressing the press today at the Academy’s National Conference and Exhibition, Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, a pediatrician at the Craig-Dalsimer Division of Adolescent Medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of the clinical report, said that play that encourages imagination, such as with blocks and dolls, builds the creative foundation a child needs to become resilient to stress.

“Our call for an increase in childhood play supports the goal of creating of an optimal developmental environment that will prepare our children to be academically, socially, and emotionally equipped for the future,” Dr. Ginsburg said. He went on to express special concern for the nation’s under-resourced children, who are in need of a safe place to play, a recess period as a part of their school curriculum, and enrichment activities.

The report, “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” was written in response to forces that increasingly threaten children’s free play and unscheduled time, Dr. Ginsburg said, including increasing pressure on children to achieve academically and federal education policies that have led to reductions in recess time and physical education in many schools.

Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported at the press conference that colleges across the United States and in Europe are noticing an increase in the level of stress among students, as well as a fear of failure-effects of a loss of resiliency, it’s believed. This change, Ms. Jones said, and this is taking a heavy toll on “out-of-the-box” thinking in school work.

“We are seeing students that work very well in teams, but there’s very little creativity expressed by individuals,” she said. “And we are wondering, how is this going to affect our country’s innovation in the future?”

Jones told reporters that changes will be coming to the college admissions process in the next five years.

“It’s important to get the message out that getting into a good college is not just about grades. It’s also about the child’s personality and interests. There has to be a fit for both the college and the child.”

Because there are multiple contributors to the decline in children’s play time, the report concedes that there is not a single position that child advocates should take in approaching the problem. Suggestions for pediatricians include:

  • Recommend to parents that their child be given ample unscheduled, independent play time that is child-driven, not parent-directed

  • Emphasize the advantages of active play over passive activities, such as television and video games

  • Educate families about the benefits of free play, such as increased resiliency

  • Remind parents that the character traits that will prepare their child for future success arise most of all from a firm grounding in parental love, role modeling, and guidance, not exclusively from academic commitments and participation in extracurricular activities

  • Help parents evaluate the claims of marketers and advertisers about products designed to produce “super achievers”

  • Be available to parents as a sounding board in evaluating their child’s needs

  • Advocate for “safe spaces” for children living in under-resourced neighborhoods

  • Have information handy to share with parents about community resources that foster play and healthy child development

  • Support a balanced, appropriately challenging academic schedule, based on the child’s unique needs, skills, and temperament

  • Encourage parents to allow their child to explore a variety of interests without pressure to excel in all of them

  • Assess your patient’s manifestations of stress, anxiety, and depression in family-centered interviews and private interviews with the patient; refer the patient, or the family, to a mental health professional when stress, anxiety, or depression appears excessive.

“Parents feel like they are on a treadmill,” Dr. Ginsburg noted in closing, “and they worry that they won’t be doing their job as parents if they don’t participate in a hurried lifestyle. These parents need to be assured that the cornerstones of parenting, listening, caring, guiding are the true predictors of whether their child is going to be happy and successful.”