Ten Reasons to Encourage Your Child to Play

Go Out And Play

With school in session, homework, studying and a steady diet of structured activities are standard fare for many kids. Soccer, ballet, piano and other extracurricular activities broaden the horizon and set the stage for personal growth. But over-scheduling children has a downside.

While academics, lessons and organized sports are important, kids need goof-off time, too. Studies show that to remain healthy, children of all ages need plenty of unstructured play.

Why play?

Dr. Stuart Brown, a retired psychiatrist, clinical researcher and author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (Avery, 2009), studied the play behavior of animals and more than 6,000 people from all walks of life, from serial killers to Nobel Prize winners. His research concluded that playtime is critical to the emotional, social and cognitive health of children.

Everyone understands play is pleasurable and a good distraction from stress, but science also teaches that play is a biological process crucial to our survival. In rats, play reduces impulsivity, which is similar to ADHD in humans. We are simply hard-wired to play.

Brown says making play a part of our daily lives is critical to feeling fulfilled as happy, successful human beings. What constitutes play? Much more than games and sports. Play involves books, music, art, jokes, movies, drama and daydreaming.

Play to win

The following are 10 important reasons to create more time to play:

Play teaches life skills. Sometimes we trivialize play or fail to see its usefulness. But it’s more than fun. In addition to improving emotional health, it serves a biological and developmental purpose. When social mammals such as rats and monkeys are deprived of rough-and-tumble play, they enter adulthood emotionally fragile. Play builds resilience and helps them distinguish friend from foe, handle stress better, and form better skills to mate properly.

Play improves social competence. Play teaches people to  master and adapt to changing circumstances. Even dealing with or avoiding being excluded from games like tag or dodge ball are helpful social skills to learn.

Play and physical activity improve symptoms of mild ADHD. Lara Honos-Webb, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Gift of ADHD (2005), suggests parents of children with ADHD make time for them to run around outside before school and be sure that recess is never taken away as a punishment for poor behavior.

Play burns calories. Trends for childhood obesity are staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of childhood obesity for kids ages 6-11 has increased from 6.5 percent (1976-80) to 20 percent (2007-2008). Obese children have an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, asthma, sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes.

Play can lead to stronger academic performance. This may be especially relevant for boys. Anthony Pellegrini, educational psychologist and author of Recess (2005), discovered that successful peer interaction at recess was an excellent predictor of success on standardized tests. When boys established competence on the playground, they also did better in the classroom and paid attention better.

Play deficiency may result in serious consequences. After analyzing thousands of “play histories,” Brown stresses that play deficiencies can lead to closed-mindedness, inflexibility and unhappiness. Lifelong play is part of the antidote. Brown also discovered that for young homicidal males and drunk drivers, rough-and-tumble play was missing from their childhoods.

Play expands horizons. Play is not simply a trivial escape. It provides a way to learn to problem-solve and, as Brown writes, “reshapes our rigid views of the world.”

Play is purposeful. Play is not just a mindless activity; it is active learning. As Brown puts it: “From an evolutionary perspective, the smarter the animal, the more they play … it gets us in touch with our core selves and the joy of life.”

Play keeps curiosity and wonder alive. Kids today spend half the time outside than they did just 20 years ago. The lure of animation, video games and online networking is so tempting and culturally reinforced that the beauty of nature and fresh air is often overlooked.

Successful people play A LOT. Playfulness sparks creativity and innovation. Brown’s analysis of the play histories of successful adults led him to discover “highly successful people have a rich play life.”

Michele Ranard has a husband, two children, and a master’s degree in counseling.

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