What does it mean
To give our kids
The joy of screen-free play
It means affording
Kids the time
To wholly shape each day
It means providing
Kids the space
To boldly roam outdoors
It means preserving
To learn, not rack up scores
It means embracing
Of who they wish to be
It means protecting
To live authentically
As we close out 2018, what is it we wish for our children? For most parents, it is to have them grow up happy, healthy, and passionately embracing life. So then what is our duty in enabling them to reach adulthood as independent, resilient, and purpose-driven individuals? For generations the answer to this question was simple. Let kids develop their sense of self by granting them a childhood full of open-ended play. And not surprisingly, with play as the foundation, the rest took perfect care of itself.
In today’s frenetic world, “giving our children the gift of open-ended play” has become a much more challenging endeavor. With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, our children inadvertently became guinea pigs in a global experiment as technology reshaped childhood and adolescence. And with recent studies now beginning to draw a link between screen time and increasing feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and depression, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has responded to this crisis in an unprecedented manner. Beginning in October of 2016, the academy boldly revised its screen time guidelines to much more stringent than in prior years with the following statement:
- For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
- For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
- For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity, and other behaviors essential to health.
Now two years after this stance on screen time, the AAP and other experts are focusing more research on play and screen-time and its effects. You could say 2018 was a banner year when it came to play, especially open-ended play. Here are the three biggest headlines from this past year about play and childhood development.
Pediatricians Encouraged to Write Prescriptions for Play
In August of this year, the AAP delivered a groundbreaking clinical report entitled, “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children.” This report highlighted the critical benefits of play and encouraged pediatricians to give a “Prescription for Play” to caregivers during well child visits before age two, advising that play is important to healthy child development. It was an uncharacteristically bold stance, and mainstream media began to take notice.
Doctors Say the Best Educational Toys for Kids Are the Classics
In perhaps its most seminal stance yet when it comes to play, the AAP just this month released another clinical report entitled, “Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era.” The report goes even further than the previous one in suggesting the dangers to children of technology overuse: “There has been increasing recognition of potential for harm in the context of exposure to electronic media . . . in particular electronic media have been associated with displacement of play-based caregiver-child interactions and reductions in cognitive and/or language and gross motor activities, with implications for child development and health outcomes (e.g., obesity.)”
It establishes the role of pediatricians to advise caregivers on toys that are appropriate for young children based on development stage, opportunities for learning, and safety. And most importantly, it encourages caregivers to choose toys that are open-ended and allow the child to play with them in innumerable ways both today and as they grow.
Study Shows Significant Brain Differences in Kids Who Spend Hours on Screens
Just last weekend, Anderson Cooper and 60 Minutes ran a segment entitled “Groundbreaking Study Examines Effects of Screen Time on Kids,” only further strengthening the case against technology usage in young children. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, the lead author of the AAP’s most recent screen time guidelines, was featured in the piece and stated, “What we do know about babies playing with iPads is that they don’t transfer what they learn from the iPad to the real world, which is to say that if you give a child an app where they play with virtual Legos, virtual blocks, and stack them, and then put real blocks in front of them, they start all over . . . they don’t transfer the knowledge from two dimensions to three.”
The data is certainly compelling. And if we are truly being honest, even as adults it certainly feels better both mentally and physically going on a long hike in nature rather than spending hours on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook. For me personally, I can actually feel that addictive dopamine surge when I am too tethered to a screen, finding it difficult to “come back down to reality.” And if we feel that way as adults, imagine what is occurring in the nascent brains of children. Could it be that we are coming full circle and play may be reestablishing its place in the sun? After decades of being thought of as a frivolous “nice-to-have” rather than a “must-have” in a society that placed more importance on accumulating activities for a resume rather than building essential life skills, is it possible play was all we ever needed?
At Melissa & Doug, we certainly believe that to be the case. And although tragic we had to succumb to a global mental health epidemic in order to come back to where we had always been, we heartily embrace the fact that we are home. Because let’s get one thing straight—play is not just for children. And part of the reason we deemphasized play in our children for so many years is that we lost sight of it in our own lives—so focused on getting ahead and succeeding ourselves. We completely forgot about what brought us joy and made us eager to jump out of bed each day—alive with possibility and curiosity about our world.
If we can embrace unplugging in our adult lives and reconnect with our innate sense of meaning and purpose, we will be much more equipped to champion that same ability for our children. My youngest child, who is now 10, is fortunate to have access to a world of technology at his fingertips. But the other day as I was putting him to bed he softly whispered to me, “All I keep thinking about is walking on the beach and collecting shells. I cannot wait to do that again.” The opportunity to let our brains rest and bodies roam free is all we truly crave in our souls. Let’s make 2019 the year to support both our children’s and our own desire to do just that.