Unstructured play is essential for healthy child development

Help prevent the death of play

It’s a silent tragedy of modern times that our children aren’t getting as much free play as previous generations. This article from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “The Importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds”, is an excellent summary of the facts.

There are a host of reasons why our kids aren’t playing as much. Among the children of the middle class, we see too many electronic devices, busy family schedules, school demands, and too many structured activities at too young an age. And among children from lower socio-economic and underprivileged families, there are additional barriers such as access to safe play opportunities.

Regardless of the reasons, it is a serious issue that we may be failing to recognize fully, and our children may be paying the price. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics: “The overriding premise is that play (or some available free time in the case of older children and adolescents) is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.”

The article goes on to list the benefits that come from play, and especially unstructured free play:

  • Healthy brain development
  • Increased confidence and resiliency to face future challenges
  • Skill development in negotiation, sharing, and self-advocacy
  • Decision-making and discovery of true personal interests
  • Leadership, creativity and group skills
  • Development of active, healthy bodies

So what can parents do? The article is addressed specifically to pediatricians, but it offers suggestions that would apply to parents:

  • Promote free play as a healthy, essential part of childhood
  • Discourage television and electronic games
  • Promote “true toys” such as blocks and dolls that encourage children to use their imagination
  • Develop healthy bonds with your child by taking time to listen and talk
  • Recognize that rushing between activities may not be quality time for you and your child
  • Carefully evaluate the claims that certain products and services will produce “super-children”
  • Encourage your child to explore interests without a pressure to excel, and promote a variety of activities and interests for balance
  • Become an advocate for developing “safe spaces” in underprivileged neighbourhoods

We all want to raise children who are happy, healthy and confident to fulfill their potential as human beings, and this is one of the goals of physical literacy. The precise parenting formula for making it happen may never be clear, but it’s certain that unstructured play is an essential part.

One response to “Help prevent the death of play

  1. I just discovered your site through your add in the Globe and Mail. I am imoressed. Love the concept. Your article lead me to the pediatrition’s abstract on free play. It should be essential reading for every parent, educator, health care worker, municipal administrator and politician. Thank you for doing your part in bringing these ideas into our public consciousness.
    John Kuby – playground designer

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