The importance of play
In our busy times of balancing work schedules, fulfilling family obligations, and creating beautiful memories during this holiday season, “play” is not frequently a word at the forefront of our thoughts. As adults, most of us have forgotten the effortless way we once played as children. And, since it isn’t a major part of our own lives now, our perception of its value has likely decreased.
It is common to hear something that is easily done or trivial be referred to as “child’s play.” This idiom could not be more of a misnomer when it comes to the importance of play in a child’s development. For children, play is not a frivolous game; it is serious business, and while it is hard to define play, the qualities of this activity often result in joyful discovery and include:
Play is so important, in fact, that the American Academy of Pediatrics has written multiple clinical reports, the most recent update in 2018, regarding The Power of Play. In it, explanations of how and why playing with parents and peers is key to promoting healthy brains, bodies, and social bonds. Benefits include improvement of language, math, and social skills, and helping children cope with stress.
Despite the many obvious benefits, research tells us that the amount of time children are able get to play has been decreasing for decades. This reason is multifactorial, but likely includes busy family and school schedules, extensive parent work obligations, fewer safe places to play, and rising media use and screen time.
There are various types of play that have different benefits for children:
1) Toy and object play
2) Physical play
3) Outdoor play
4) Pretend play
In toy and object play, an infant or child explores an object to learn about its properties, progressing from sensorimotor exploration to the use of symbolic objects (eg, when a child uses a banana for a telephone) for communication, language, and abstract thought.
Physical play progresses from pat-a-cake games to the development of foundational motor skills that are important to promote a healthy lifestyle and prevent obesity. It also allows children to take risks in a safe environment to build confidence.
Outdoor play allows children to use all their senses to build skills important to their development, making recess an essential part of a child’s day at school. In fact, studies suggest that in countries where children receive more recess time, increased academic success is seen as they grow.
Pretend play gives children the opportunity to experiment with different social roles and encourages creativity.
My patients’ parents hear me recite the importance of: talking, singing, reading, playing, and repeat. It sounds simple, but it will make a bigger impact on your child than the most expensive electronic device money can buy. Children need laps, not apps.
While some of the most popular electronic devices may be under the Christmas tree this year, it is important to remember that media use, including television, video games, and smartphone/tablet apps, encourages passivity and is quite different from active learning and socially interactive play. Advertisers frequently mislead parents into thinking that electronic devices are the best way to support their child’s growth and development, when research demonstrates the opposite; that real learning happens better in person-to-person interactions.
At every well-child visit, I ask young children what is their favorite thing to do with their family. A response I hear frequently is, “play with them.” That response does this pediatrician’s heart good, opening the door to further advocate for the importance of all forms of play as well as for the role of play in the development of executive functioning, emotional intelligence, and social skills. Pediatricians love the opportunity to help parents find creative and age-appropriate ways to play with their children at various stages of their development, and to help address barriers that may make regular play more difficult.
Play is fundamental in learning 21st century skills: problem solving, collaboration, and creativity, which are critical for adult success. And yes, while there are many benefits, play is also just fun! As parents, we want our children to grow into adults that are curious, creative, healthy, and happy. Giving them plenty of opportunities for various types of play is a great way to encourage that to happen.
Dr. Michael K. Foxworth II is a pediatrician and pediatric infectious disease specialist who practices at HopeHealth Pediatrics in Florence.