Kids and Playtime – Why It Is so Important

Sandra Musial, MD

Playtime is a crucial part of your child’s emotional, social, and physical development.  But it is about much more than having fun.

Play can:

  • stimulate the imagination and encourage creativity
  • help children learn how to respond appropriately to positive and negative emotions based on their experiences playing with other children
  • teach toddlers to learn to share, take turns, or be a leader by doing something as simple as building with blocks
  • assist in teaching critical skills such as negotiation and conflict resolution, especially during unstructured play when children, not adults, make the rules
  • involve exercise that helps to enhance coordination, build muscles, and gets the heart pumping, helping to keep the body at a healthy weight

Play at any age

Play is vital at every stage of childhood.

Young babies can learn a lot just by passing a rattle from one hand to another - watching it, feeling it, and hearing it. This simple play activity helps the nervous system coordinate hearing, hand and arm muscles, and eye impulses; there’s a lot of learning occurring with the simple shake of a rattle!

Toddlers’ play helps develop coordination, muscle strength, and balance through climbing, running, falling, and getting back up again. They learn to manage the emotional surprise of the fall, manage minor pain, and develop resilience

School age kids left to create their own fun are incredibly creative. Make-pretend play like playing “school” or “store” and snow fort building, art projects or tag-type games allow kids to make the rules and assign jobs which require negotiation skills and thinking on their feet. All of the above involve more physical activity than sitting in front of the TV.

Older children benefit from being involved in team sports or other organized group activities like band or drama. By being part of a team, teens learn that practice requires hard work and dedication, that loss requires one to get up and try again, and that persistence pays off with improved performance. As a team member, teens gain a sense of belonging critical to self-esteem. The community of team sports and the team mentality is transferable to the workplace and family life in the future.

Constructive playtime

For children to really benefit from play, it is important for you as a parent to give your child time to play in a safe space. While children must be supervised, do so from a distance. Allowing children to use their imagination will be most beneficial for their development. Try letting the play take a natural course and see where it flows, redirecting only if needed.

Some ideas for parents to set the groundwork for creative play:

  • Gather a bunch of objects that could combine to make an obstacle course, and let the kids take it from there.
  • Take kids to local park with woods and let them make a fort out of sticks. Being surrounded by nature and hearing the sounds of the forest can be both soothing and stimulating.  
  • Provide minimal props like chalk and a chalkboard to encourage school age children to pretend play “school,” with one child being the teacher and others being the school children.
  • Provide paints and paper, clay, or beads and allow your children to create from their imagination.

Screen time

There is a difference between creative play and screen time. In today’s world, children spend a lot of time in front of screens, whether it be television or smartphones, video games or social media. While some of this technology can certainly have its benefits for learning and development, too much screen time can have a downside.

Research has shown that excessive screen time is associated with pediatric obesity, poor sleep, and behavioral problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of screen time per day for children older than five, and one hour of high quality programming for children ages two to five. Children 18 to 24 months should have only parent-supervised quality programming, so the toddlers understand what they are viewing, and no digital media for babies less than 18 months.

Finding balance

Sometimes children may have too many scheduled activities. Between school, homework, lessons, and sports, children may not get enough free playtime. Being overscheduled can create an unhealthy amount of stress when there is little time to decompress and just let their minds relax and flow. This can lead to anxiety and even depression in children.

It’s important to find that balance between scheduled activities like school, sports, and lessons, and unstructured playtime away from screens. Remember, every child has different needs, but all of them need unstructured playtime.

For more tips on children's health, visit the Growing section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

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