Published on March 01, 2019

Playtime with children is important - for them and youPut down the remote and get outside with your kids

If you feel guilty that your children are not enrolled in the latest after-school class or sport, don’t be.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has released a clinical report that says if you want creative, curious, healthier children with 21st-Century skills, then let them play. The report says unstructured playtime helps children buffer toxic stress and enhance brain function.

According to pediatrician Kathryn M. Rudman, MD who practices at Seaside Pediatrics in West Yarmouth, the report reinforces what doctors have been telling parents for years: Play is the absolute best thing we can do to unplug, unwind and enjoy time with our kids.

“Natural, spontaneous play fosters creativity and language skills, self-regulation (give and take between children or between children and adults), social skills, succeeding, failing, trying again, learning along the way. Playtime enhances curiosity and exploration. It’s so different than going to an organized activity where children are just asked to follow directions,” she said.

Our parents probably knew how important playtime is, she added. “But over the last 20 years, organized activities have become more important to most parents. As a result, too many children and parents are over-scheduled. The drive to sign up for every extracurricular activity, work hard and be successful causes undue stress for parents and children.

“I’m happy to issue moms and dads prescriptions to play. Play is a central part of healthy child development, and it’s much more meaningful than having organized activities take over so many children’s lives,” said Dr. Rudman.

Permission to Play

Building sandcastles. Playing tag. Throwing a pebble onto a hopscotch board drawn in the dirt. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that learning is facilitated by the child's natural urge to play, rather than through external motivations such as test scores. The organization offers several important tips for parents, pediatricians and educators:

  • Doctors should encourage playful learning for parents and infants by writing a "prescription for play" at every well-child visit in the first two years of life.
  • Play starts early and continues through a child's development. New parents should observe and respond to the nonverbal behavior of infants during their first few months of life. For example, when a baby smiles at you, smile back. Peak-a-boo is another important game.
  • Educators, pediatricians and families should advocate for and protect unstructured play and playful learning in preschools and schools because of its numerous benefits.
  • Teachers should focus on playful, rather than didactic, learning by letting children take the lead and follow their own curiosity.
  • Promote recess and physical activity for children every day.

Play and playful learning—including time spent reading to a child—fosters creativity, self-regulation and executive function, which is the process of learning, planning and staying focused and organized. Executive function allows us to pursue goals and ignore distractions, Dr. Rudman explained.

Outdoors Is Best

“Of course, families who play together stay closer together and they stay healthier together. You can’t overemphasize the joy, the emotional benefits of taking time to play with your kids,” said Dr. Rudman.

She believes outdoor play is best.

“I have always told my children—who are now teenagers—there’s no such thing as bad weather; just bad clothing. So put on some good clothing and get outside and play,” she said.

Outdoor play fosters more physical activity, gets us out in the fresh air and sunshine to get some good Vitamin D, and cuts down on mindless screen time. Outdoor play also fosters some spontaneous creativity, which is how kids can learn to solve problems and cope with life, she said.

“You don’t need a lot of toys at home. All you need are books, some balls and creativity. I think too much time is spent trying to have the perfect toys. Think about all that’s available in the woods or on the beach. Sticks, sand, leaves—the kids figure it out.

“One of my favorite things to do is let children play with the stuff in the recycling box. My children liked playing with brightly colored duct tape, the plastic bottles and boxes. The things kids create are amazing, and they are learning problem-solving skills while they are playing,” she said.

Dr. Rudman also recommends creating makeshift outdoor obstacle courses. Everyone in the family plays and the game can be enhanced by doings things like:

  • Timing each other
  • Having everyone beat their personal best times.
  • Setting up stations.
  • Getting in a pillow case and hop from tree to tree.
  • Doing 10 push-ups.
  • Running through hula hoops, etc.

“The best playtime is when the whole family gets involved, laughs and has fun together. Playing with your child can even count as your physical workout for the day,” she said.