Make time for play

By Kelly Wright, MD

Father and son playing

Children race from school to soccer practice to piano lessons, then home for dinner, chores and homework before bedtime. Where’s the time for unstructured play in a child’s day?

New studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics reveal that such a busy life is less than ideal for children because it doesn’t include important time for relaxation and play. These outlets are essential for providing relief from the demands of family and school. Years of tightly structured days with little down time may produce a combination of depression, anxiety, perfectionism and stress.

The AAP report, which was based on clinical studies and published in October, concludes: “Free, unstructured play is healthy and, in fact, essential for helping children reach important social, emotional and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.”

Play is the “work” of childhood. Children use their creativity to develop their imagination and dexterity. Spontaneous, undirected play helps them learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts and learn self-advocacy skills.

Many parents are not inclined to slow the pace of scheduled activities, fearing their children will fall behind developmentally or socially. Overall, a balance must be developed. The AAP report suggests that reduced time for physical activity may be contributing to the academic differences between boys and girls. This is especially true for some boys attending schools with sedentary learning styles. Unstructured play may counteract this by allowing these children to select more physical activities for themselves.

Parents should make sure their children – from infancy to college age – have daily free time to interact with siblings and friends in undirected play activities. Toys that encourage imagination – such as blocks and dolls – should be readily available. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to interact with their children, so remember to enjoy unstructured time as a family, too.

Dr. Wright practices with CHKD Health System’s Pediatric Specialists.