Taking play seriously

Remember playing dress-ups?

Your children might not.  

A new report by the American Academy of Pediatrics warns “play is disappearing” - and is urging doctors to literally write prescriptions for it.

If your kids spending their down-time on screens, not trampolines, you're in good company. 

 More and more children are gravitating toward digital play - and more and more parents are facilitating the shift. After all, they reason, a screen-based game keeps them safely at home. It doesn’t make a mess. And it’s preparing them for life in a technological world … right?

Yet experts are increasingly concerned that screen-based games aren’t delivering the same benefits as old-school play - the kind kids do with blocks and puzzles, trampolines and jump ropes, board games and cubby-houses.


Play builds better brains

That’s the substance of a recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, that argues forcefully for a return to unstructured play - and urges parents, doctors and caregivers to make it a priority in the lives of today’s children.

“Play is not frivolous,” the report’s authors insist. “It is brain-building.” Which is why they’re encouraging paediatricians to literally “write a prescription for play” for their young patients.

What is play?

We all know it when we see it. But it can be tricky to pin play down. Experts have defined it as “an activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, and results in joyful discovery. Play is voluntary and often has no extrinsic goals; it is fun and often spontaneous.”

Free choice is fundamental to the experience of play. If cannot be mandated, only encouraged.

What’s the purpose of play?

Extensive studies of animal play have shown that the function of play is to build a “prosocial brain” - that is, one that can interact effectively with others. Although fun is central to play, it’s also about learning to take risks, to experiment and to test boundaries.

lion cubs

When they play, children are solving problems and learning to focus attention. Maybe this is why insufficient play-time has been linked to attention-deficit disorders. And why play is considered protective against stress and trauma.

Are today’s kids playing less?

Both at school and at home, the evidence is clear: Children are missing out.

One study showed that from 1981 to 1997, kids’ playtime decreased by 25%.

Children aged 3 to 11 have lost 12 hours per week of free time - thanks to cuts in recess and P.E., not to mention increasing amounts of homework and extracurricular “enrichments” in the form of lessons and structured group activities.

Then there’s parents’ anxiety about outdoor play. One recent study found 94% of parents were worried when their kids played outside. In another, which surveyed 9,000 families with preschoolers, only half of children ventured outdoors to walk or play daily with a parent.

What about digital play?

Many parents are convinced that technology offers children the best way to learn, according to recent research. But the evidence shows otherwise. 

One study compared toddlers who played with blocks independently to peers who watched Baby Einstein videos and found the tower-builders developed better language and thinking skills. And that wasn’t a one-off. Play with traditional toys versus digital toys has been repeatedly associated with enhanced verbal skills.

What’s more, pretend play encourages self-regulation. It requires kids to collaborate in creating the imaginary environment and agree about roles. Some multiplayer online games work in the same way, although the collaboration can create safety hazards when children are interacting with strangers.

insane kid

Device use (eg, television, video games, smartphone and tablet apps) is more likely to accustom children to the passive consumption of others’ creativity - despite significant exceptions like interactive construction games Minecraft and Roblox.

Most important of all, screen-time displaces time that would otherwise be spent in real play, either outdoors or indoors.

Preparation for a technological world

Maybe the ultimate irony is that it is old-school, unstructured play - not “educational” apps - will best prepare our children for adult success in the 21st century.

The technological future that awaits our kids will demand highly evolved skills in problem-solving, collaboration and creativity. And those are exactly the skills that free-wheeling, low-tech, kid-centric play cultivates best.

Today’s children love their digital games and apps - and so, for that matter, do their parents! There’s nothing wrong with that. But achieving a healthy balance between online and offline play can be a challenge.

Family Zone is helping tens of thousands across Australia - and all over the world - to meet that challenge. Our acclaimed parental controls empower the grown-ups to manage screen-time, block inappropriate content and set study-times, play-times and bed- times. Learn more and start your free trial today at familyzone.com.

Topics: Parental Controls, Screen time, Cyber Safety, parenting, creativity, well-being, play, brain, collaboration

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