5 Ways to Get More Play Into Your Child’s Life
Although in one sense I am thrilled with the American Academy of Pediatrics recent policy statement recommending pediatricians write a “prescription for play” at every well-visit during a child’s first two years of life, I know that giving a prescription is really just the beginning. I mean, how many times have you been given a prescription that you haven’t filled? Or started taking the prescription, and then stopped the moment you felt better? Personally, I have done both of these countless times.
A prescription is really only a suggestion. And even if you properly fill it in the traditional sense, it is much easier to just “take a pill,” than embark on a lifetime of fostering free play for your child. A journey this challenging, in my opinion, will involve much more than just a prescription—it demands a firm commitment. Because unlike a prescription, a commitment is a promise and not something to be dismissed or taken lightly.
Sign a Contract to Commit to Play
So how about pediatricians asking for a commitment from parents in the form of a signed promise to nurture playtime? I have in mind something like this “Take Back Childhood” contract we created for parents and kids to sign. Because each and every parent needs to understand that choosing to foster a child’s imagination through play requires continual diligence, attention and focus. It necessitates much more investment and coaching on the part of the parents than ever, and making difficult decisions throughout children’s early years that will go against conventional norms and what their peers may be doing. It will involve incredible determination and continual prioritization, because many around them will be choosing unhealthy options, still not believing in the power of free play. And it will require developing a host of concrete tools to pull out when children fall into the rut of turning to screens to fill their downtime.
Parents themselves will need to embrace this fight entirely in their hearts and minds, and become champions of open-ended thinking through leading by example and exposing its virtues to the world. Anything short of this, and our children will gradually fall further prey to the addictive qualities of technology overuse and its ensuing anxiety and depression.
While I am excited that the medical establishment has begun to embrace the power of play in an official, policy-oriented way, I also know that from a practical standpoint, parents may find filling this prescription easier said than done. With that in mind, I’m more committed than ever to giving parents concrete tools and solutions for making play a priority.
5 Ways to Get More Play Into Your Child’s Life
Here are some ideas for parents and caregivers on how they can “fill” a prescription for play.
- Choose Hands-On Activities and Active Play Over Screen Time
The AAP report goes into great detail about animal studies that have demonstrated lasting, positive changes in brain architecture thanks to play. Just two hours of day of hands-on play with objects affected test subjects’ brain density and efficiency. The report also cites a study that found 3- and 4-year-olds engaged in active play better handle stressful transitions. Set kids up for success by ensuring they have easy access to toys and everyday objects that inspire play: a craft basket filled with paper, crayons, and basic art supplies; a dress-up basket with interesting clothing and accessories that can be used for pretend play; an outdoor play basket with different-sized balls, Frisbees, bubbles, chalk, and water balloons; and a game basket filled with classic favorites like playing cards, puzzles, checkers, and chess.
- Know That Simple, Traditional Toys Are Best
This finding by the AAP hit close to home as I have long been a believer in the power of simple, traditional toys and classic play patterns to aid in the development of critical skills. The report notes:
“Play in a variety of forms (active physical play, pretend play, and play with traditional toys and shape sorters [rather than digital toys]) improves children’s skills. When children were given blocks to play with at home with minimal adult direction, preschool children showed improvements in language acquisition at a 6-month follow-up, particularly low-income children.
“Play with traditional toys was associated with an increased quality and quantity of language compared with play with electronic toys, particularly if the video toys did not encourage interaction. . . It is parents’ and caregivers’ presence and attention that enrich children, not elaborate electronic gadgets.”
Most children still collect many more toys than they will ever use. It is our job as parents to continually enhance the toy box by removing toys that stifle imagination and keeping playthings that promote open-ended, imaginative play, and that can grow with children through multiple stages of development.
- Schedule Screen-Free Playtime . . .
If play is going to be a priority, it needs to be treated with the same respect as other obligations such as school and extracurricular activities. It may sound counterintuitive to schedule downtime, but it’s a critical step to ensuring it actually happens. Try to think of unstructured, child-led playtime in the same way you think of your child’s weekly soccer practice. Put it on your calendar. Make room for it in your lives. The process of noting it formally on a calendar may be just the mental trick to help you stick to it.
- . . . But Also Build in Moments of Play Throughout the Day
Blocking off time for play is great, but it’s also important to incorporate spontaneous moments of imagination and wonder throughout the day. Before bedtime, make up little jokes, riddles, and songs; on the way to school, play spelling or math games; make at least one trip outside each day to experience nature. Figuring out creative ways to make mundane, everyday life a little more playful is an incredible exercise for us grownups – it gets our minds thinking in new patterns and making new connections. In the conversation about play, this point often gets overlooked — adults benefit from it, too!
- Nurture a Balanced Play Diet
It’s important to facilitate different kinds of play (pretend, dramatic, creative, physical, competitive) with different group configurations (solo, parent/child, peer-to-peer, small groups, mixed ages) and in varied settings (indoor, outdoor, parks, museums, in the car, at restaurants, at sibling’s events). Think hard about how your child is spending his or her time. Just as you would ensure their food diet is balanced with a variety of healthful options, their playtime should feature a range of types of play that engage different aspects of their mind and body.
A prescription for play is undoubtedly a much-needed acknowledgement that we are as a society starving our children of open-ended play. But it is just the beginning and for most won’t represent more than an unheeded suggestion. To truly ignite change, we need a much more intentional and prescribed path to ENSURE that we are taking the correct steps to nurture play. But additionally, I implore pediatricians to go even further than just writing a prescription. I hope they attach concrete actions to these suggestions and consistently follow up to see that free play is continuing well past the first two years of life and into childhood. It’s about time that we as a society go from thinking of play as unnecessary to championing it as an essential, doctor-recommended ingredient for our kids’ (and our own) health and happiness.