In recent years, with schedules becoming more busy, academic expectations on children growing increasingly stringent, and after-school play time becoming more commonly replaced with structured activities and extracurricular programs, children are having less free time to play, explore the world on their own, and just ‘be kids’. And, according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), this may not be entirely healthy for children. The new report states that unstructured playtime is not only healthy, but essential for children in reaching important social, emotional and cognitive developmental milestones, and enables children to better manage stress and become resilient.
Children Benefit From Play
According to the AAP, “Whereas play protects children's emotional development, a loss of free time in combination with a hurried lifestyle can be a source of stress, anxiety and may even contribute to depression for many children.
“The report reaffirms that the most valuable and useful character traits that will prepare children for success come not from extracurricular or academic commitments, but from a firm grounding in parental love, role modeling and guidance.”
The factors relating to the shift away from unstructured play opportunities are very real and widespread, including changes in family structure, increasingly competitive college admissions standards, and changes in school policies that replace recess and physical education minutes with time spent doing seatwork.
The report isn’t saying that all academic enrichment opportunities and organized activities are bad; many have valuable benefits. However, a balance needs to be reached, and individual children’s needs need to be taken into account.
What Parents Can Do:
Because some of these factors are our of a parent’s control, the AAP has some recommendations for what parents can do to offset the impact of these forces. The AAP recommends the following courses of action:
- Be sure your child has access to ‘true toys’ like blocks and dolls, which stimulate creativity, rather than objects that require more passive participation from children;
- Support an appropriately challenging academic schedule for your particular child with a balance of extracurricular activities that suit his or her unique needs, rather than duplicating what other ‘competitive parents’ are doing, or anticipating what you think colleges may require;
- Be wary of advertising claims about products and toys that intend to help produce ‘super-children’;
- Understand that your child doesn’t need to be superior in many areas to be considered successful in life;
- If you’re choosing a daycare or preschool, look for one that addresses social and emotional development needs as well as academic needs.
Additionally, I recommend that you spend time just enjoying your children, building traditions as a family, and offering play dates where your child can just hang out with friends and come up with their own games. Many forms of play develop skills that can be used to excel in school and in life, so keep in mind that this isn’t time wasted.
Also, remember that children benefit from learning stress management and self care skills just as adults do. The following resources can help you encourage your children to learn healthy habits, and can help your family develop healthy and fun activities and traditions to enjoy together.