Child Development
Healthy Child’s Play: Time to Get Serious About Goofing Off

Healthy Child’s Play: Time to Get Serious About Goofing Off

February 26, 2013

By Alexandra Zissu, Editorial Director

It can be tempting to overschedule the kids, but it’s time to get serious about goofing off. A conference held last week at Clemson University on the value of play  with sessions like “The Lasting Effects of Play Deprivation” and “Shaping Tomorrow’s Female Leaders Through Play,” formalized the perspective among many childhood development specialists that play isn’t just fun. It’s essential to intellectual, social, and emotional growth.

Research has found that play reduces stress, improves recall, and enhances self-regulation. It teaches cooperation, negotiation, conflict resolution, and self-advocacy skills. One 2007 study compared 4 to 5 year-olds in a preschool using a play-based curriculum with those enrolled in a more typical program. The play-based students scored so much higher on cognitive flexibility, self-control, and working memory—core executive functions linked to academic achievement—that the study was halted early so the non-play-based kids could start playing, too.

Children learn more and behave better when they get plenty of playtime. Yet in a test-centric educational world, that time is increasingly hard to come by. Teachers are being required to devote more and more hours to standardized test preparation, which leaves little time for playing.

The experts who contend that’s a mistake also caution that not all play is created equal. Playgrounds with natural elements are said to promote higher activity levels than traditional playgrounds. And children playing with toys based on TV characters or other media tend to play less creatively.

In general, they say, the more generic the toy and the more self-directed the play, the higher the quality of the playtime. The most imaginative and therefore most productive play occurs with the simplest “toys”: cardboard boxes, plain blocks, wooden dowels, and the like. This may come as a relief to parents worried about toxins found in many of today’s manufactured toys. So let the kids play, and don’t forget to join in the fun.

For more on healthy play, visit the Alliance for Childhood, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and the Children and Nature Network.