Just Let Them Play

Child with leaves  While this is not new information, it bears repeating.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children have time for play.  What do we mean by play?  It means time to create their own games with parents or other children, time to be outside in an unstructured way, time to be creative in the house with crafts, playing with blocks or other toys that allow for creativity and fun.  Play is a way to spend time that is unbounded and unscheduled, to develop curiosity and discover new things.  It does not have rules, like sports, and does not have to do with academic achievement, although it can contribute to academic growth in other ways.

In recent years more and more of children’s’ time is spent on academics and in front of screens. Even young children up to age 8 are spending over two hours a day looking at a screen.  Some of the children I treat are so overscheduled with sports and academic enhancement programs, that their parents have to schedule a day off.  These children are doing homework at late hours of the night, or are falling asleep in the car going from sports practices to religious programs.  While there is nothing wrong with any of these activities individually, when taken together, we find children who don’t have a single afternoon off after school.  They have no time to think or do creatively.   And it shows.  They are stressed, they are not sleeping well, they are more irritable, and some fall apart when the schedule juggling becomes overwhelming.

I think of these youngsters as the hurried children.  Everything in their lives, from getting dressed, to eating breakfast, to getting to school, is part of a schedule that they have to hurry through.  Dr. Michael Yogman, a Harvard Medical School pediatrician and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says that free play can deepen relationships when done with others, and can push back at stress.  It can also enhance a child’s ability to collaborate, negotiate, resolve conflicts, be creative, and be a leader.

Melissa Healy, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, notes in her recent article that outdoor play can lead to better school performance, increased imagination, less depression, better sleep, increased fitness and more friends.

It is so important that children learn by doing on their own, and develop their own sense of competency.  We know that this is one of the key elements of good self-esteem.  So let me add to the list above that free play can lead to a better self-image and a greater ability to figure things out for yourself, resulting in greater resilience.  Therefore…

Just let them play.

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