Play More: Why Pediatricians Are Prescribing Play for Kids of All Ages

Good news! The research is in, and the benefits of all types of play are undeniable. Play might seem trivial, but it enhances development, strengthens relationships and protects against stress. And to tap into those benefits, all you need to do is have fun!

Recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics

Have you seen lion cubs roughhousing on the savanna? They’re practicing their future hunting moves. Turns out, that’s not so different from the young of our species. In its September 2018 report “The Power of Play,” the American Academy of Pediatrics claims that unstructured play builds social-emotional, cognitive, language and self-regulation skills, all of which are important for successful adulthoods. When children don’t play, the results speak for themselves, says Dr. Danelle Stabel, a pediatrician at Henry Ford Medical Center - Troy. Those include difficulty getting along with others, obesity and a toxic stress response or stress so severe and long-lasting that the body and brain are affected, increasing the risk for disease and cognitive impairment.

Dr. Stabel mentions tech and media as two challenges overshadowing traditional types of play. “These days, it’s popular to watch videos of other kids unboxing and playing with toys,” she says. “What happened to, ‘Let’s go outside and build a fort?’ ”

As kids get older, social media tends to take over free time, which can be detrimental. “The more time kids spend on media,” Dr. Stabel says, “the more at risk they are for anxiety and depression. They compare themselves to other kids’ highlight reel, and it seems like everyone else’s life is way better.”

Although it’s natural for parents to want their kids to have the latest technology, Dr. Stabel encourages caregivers to moderate children’s tech use. “Don’t deny your kids tech if they really enjoy it,” she says. “But make sure they’ve done their chores, completed their homework and played for an hour before getting on the screen.” Preferably, that play is balanced among physical, pretend and outdoor play.

The right type of play for every age

Dr. Stabel warns against expecting your child to engage in play that’s not developmentally appropriate.  Most babies can’t solve a puzzle, but a few minutes of peekaboo is just right. “For a baby, interacting with the world is play – being introduced to smells, sounds, colors and textures,” she says. 

For toddlers, it’s time to explore the world around them, perhaps through bouncing a ball or reading a book. Preschoolers benefit from pretend play, so they might like to wear costumes or finger paint. School-age kids can make up games on their own or with peers, and they’re also ready to have more physical play such as a game of tag. And don’t forget about adolescents, who might like team sports, board games or just hanging out.  If you’re not sure what to introduce to your child, check with your pediatrician.

Play made easy

Although your child should get 60 minutes of play a day, not all of that needs to be with you. A few minutes of play here and there add up, Dr. Stabel says. “Try just five minutes before work and then another few minutes before dinner,” she recommends. “You don’t have to play continuously all day.”

Buy the latest toy, if you want, but there’s no need to spend a lot of money on playtime with your child. Some of Dr. Stabel’s favorite, inexpensive forms of play include making an obstacle course out of household or outdoor objects, blowing bubbles, jumping in a pile of leaves, having a dance party and visiting a playground.

Also, resist the urge to sign up your child for every activity they show an interest in. “I remind parents that their child will learn a lot of great skills doing just one or two things,” Dr. Stabel says. If you have to force your child to play because they’re so tired from their busy day, it’s probably better to back off.

Above all, remember that the point of play is to have fun. It may require you to get silly and messy, which can be good for parents and caregivers too! It can also feel like one more task on your to-do list. But playing with your child allows you to connect with him or her, which feels good for both of you and might even lead to better behavior.

So, consider this your prescription: Grab your kid and prepare your child for the future through good, old-fashioned play.

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Categories: Get Healthy, Get Moving