When you imagine a pediatrician writing a prescription, you probably think of medication. But did you know that pediatricians are now being urged to prescribe something arguably far more important? Based on recent studies highlighting the power of play, the American of Academy of Pediatrics AAP now recommends that pediatricians prescribe just that: Play. More specifically, they want parents and caregivers to build play into their children’s daily lives, starting in babyhood and continuing through the early years.
Why is it necessary for pediatricians to “prescribe play”?
The AAP and others note that there are several modern threats to playtime, including these:
A misguided belief that certain toys enhance play. Parents may de-emphasize play if they can’t afford expensive toys that are marketed as superior for learning. The reality, the AAP points out, is that the benefits of play are enhanced by very simple and inexpensive toys, including puzzles, blocks, balls, crayons, and household items.
Use of electronics by children. Use of electronics by babies and toddlers (and overuse of them by older children) directly interferes with play. The AAP also points out that while parents co-viewing high-quality electronic media with children may have benefits, the claims that certain media designed to be used by children alone are educational have been disproven.
Use of electronics by parents. Research also shows that parents’ electronic use decreases parent-child interaction. What’s more, when parents (or caregivers) use electronics while playing with their children, they are less aware and responsive – sabotaging the two main ingredients that produce the many benefits of 1-on-1 play in the first place.
Over-scheduling activities. The competitive nature of modern society often results in parents feeling that the more enrichment activities a child engages in, the better. While there is a place for organized activities, too many of them interfere with free play or 1-on-1 play with a parent or caregiver.
Fear of injury. Parents and caregivers are increasingly afraid that outdoor, rough-and-tumble, or other “risky play” will result in injury, which is one reason why outdoor play, in particular, has declined dramatically.
How do we know play is so important?
We know the value of play cannot be understated because research shows us that:
Play exists across species. Whether it’s turtles, rats, honey bees, or humans, play is observed throughout the animal kingdom as a context for learning life skills.
Play builds brains. Literally! Play leads to molecular and cellular changes in the brain. Animal research shows that overall time spent playing is correlated with brain weight and efficiency.
Play is central to optimal development. Play comes in many forms: structured, unstructured, with others, and alone. It can involve playing with objects, playing physically, playing outdoors, or playing pretend. Whatever form it takes, play is foundational for every area of development. It promotes curiosity, imagination, creativity, problem-solving, mental and social flexibility, self-regulation, and countless skills across development areas: social-emotional, cognitive, language, self-regulation, sensory, motor, etc. Play, or the lack of it, directly affects the trajectory of a child’s life.
Play facilitates learning. Play enhances curiosity, and MRI studies show that curiosity boosts memory and learning.
Play with supportive adults has unique benefits. While the AAP notes that free, unstructured play is also important, they point out that guided play with caregivers “scaffolding” (offering just the right amount of support) is needed for children to develop skills. (Guided play is so powerful that we built our entire BabySparks development program around it!)
Play is about fun, but also taking risks and testing boundaries. Developmentally appropriate “risky play” (such as playground games involving climbing and jumping) is central to developing the fundamental movement skills that promote a life-long active lifestyle and prevent obesity. What’s more, it teaches children what they can and cannot do safely with their bodies. When engaging in risky play with others (rough-and-tumble play, for example) children develop emotional intelligence, empathy, and and understanding of how to avoid inflicting harm.
Play reduces stress. Research shows that play can reduce anxiety and help children cope with stressful life events. For children with disruptive behavior, consistent 1-on-1 play with a supportive adult can improve it.
Play strengthens adult-child relationships. Meaningful play is an opportunity for parents and caregivers to tune-in to their children, observe them, interact with them, enjoy them, and get to know their unique strengths, challenges, interests, and quirks. All of this, in turn, nurtures a strong relationship which, in and of itself, is linked to better life outcomes for children.
Now, it’s time to play!