How well does your child play?

All play is not equal.  With the power of marketing, play has become increasingly associated with toys, electronic gadgets, television, and video games.  Just think about the amount of ads for children’s toys over the holidays.   Just think about the things your child might have asked for and the latest trends that become the new must-have of the season.

Without realizing it, we may be intervening in a child’s most natural form of “play” more than ever before.  I catch myself doing this all the time.

Children need active play that is not hindered by adult intervention and guidance.  It is how they best learn and experiment, engage with the world on their terms, and discover motivation, creativity, and self-regulation.  It comes naturally, but is easily squelched when the opportunities are interrupted.

Children may seem busy with lots of play and activities these days.  However, if you really look at how children tend to play now, they are mostly engaged in passive play.  They are being entertained by something that does not require the exercise of their own imagination or curiosity.  They are responding to and following sounds, images, and instructions, rather than creating a world of their own by themselves.

This may seem like a subtle difference, but it makes a tremendous impact on how our children develop executive function.  Executive function is a person’s ability to organize thoughts, prioritize tasks, manage time efficiently, and make decisions.  An important aspect of executive function is the ability to self-regulate.  In other words, children learn how to control and understand themselves through the process of self-guided imaginative play!

NPR has an excellent article on the importance of play without all the fancy toys and predetermined goals that we adults tend to impose on play.  They cited an interesting study that demonstrated how children are being impacted by the decline of active play in their lives:

“We know that children’s capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn’t stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning says, the results were very different.

“Today’s 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago,” Bodrova explains. “So the results were very sad.”

Sad because self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. As executive function researcher Laura Berk explains, ‘Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain.’ “

Bottom line:  Play comes naturally to children, but we as adults need to learn to foster it because there has never been more distractions and interruptions to unhindered play.

Marketing would like very much to convince us that free play is not an educational or productive use of time.  Social pressures may make you feel like the best thing to do is enroll your child in every program or activity available so that your child keeps up with others.  Our personal experiences of what we had or didn’t have growing up may also urge us to “provide” for our children in ways that they don’t necessarily need.

When it comes to play, children know how to do it.  They don’t need specific toys.  They don’t need instructions or preset goals.  Give them the opportunity to play naturally and spontaneously.  As I step back and observe my kids play, I am learning how to play again myself.

Let’s reassess play time in the family:

  • Do all the toys look like specific objects?  A child no longer needs to pretend it’s a phone or an airplane or a sword.  It simply is that specific object already.   Not much imagination needed.
  • Do all the toys have sounds, lights, and all sorts of bells and whistles?  Children may be entertained, but passively so.  Much like the entertainment of television, little if any effort or interaction is needed on their part.  Soon, children come to expect that play just happens, rather than something they must create.
  • Do I feel the urge to buy toys or activities that are often marketed as “educational”?  Loving parents with the best of intention buy them up.  It catches my eye in the store, too.  Although there may be a role for some of these activities, these are guided activities that shuffle children down a specific path.  They do not necessarily foster curiosity or a love for learning.  For example, Leapfrog does not encourage a love for books; it mimics a toy game rather than the process of reading a book.  Your Baby Can Read does not teach true reading nor is it any more effective in fostering language than the simple act of conversing with your child and reading to your child.
  • Does my child spend a majority of free time in front of the TV?  Television shows and video games, no matter how educational they are meant to be, do not count as play time.  Never have there been so many programs on TV or DVD marketed for infants and children.  Sadly, it’s simply something they do not need.  It’s not how the brain best learns, whether it’s language, math, or any other subject.  The fast-paced nature of many children’s cartoons also seems to have a negative impact on executive function. Check out my post on Sponge Bob and the Brain.
  • Does my child have opportunities to play outside?  Nature is a limitless playground and experimental laboratory.  Your child benefits from outdoor play in both body and mind.  Find safe places where you can allow your child to wander and explore, touch and feel, move and energize.
  • Is family life packed with classes and programs?  It’s great to be involved in sport teams, dance classes, art classes, etc.   However, unstructured time for free play and rest is also valuable.  Teach your child the importance of down time without relying on television, computers, and video games.  Protect family time to simply hang out and play together.  The best family moments are often spontaneous and unexpected.  Family time is also an investment in building trust over the years.
  • Does my child sense that I value play time?  We send lots of messages to our children through our actions and words.  Usually accomplishments related to school, acquired skills, or specific goals are praised.  It’s easy to focus on outward abilities.  Take the time to notice how your child plays.  Participate in your child’s play and find that kid in yourself again.  Applaud imagination and creativity.  Simply put, enjoy playing with your child, without any goal or purpose in mind.  There is no stronger message of your child’s innate worth than playing wholeheartedly together without any agenda or accomplishment expected.

Yolanda Wong is a pediatrician who blogs at Well Child Chats.

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