HOW WE PLAY
But enough about rats. What benefits do kids actually get from play? Let’s break it down by play type as outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP):
- Object play: Babies get sensory input when they mouth or bang toys. Young kids tinker with objects like little scientists, learn abstract concepts (when a banana subs in for a phone, for instance), and practice social skills such as sharing.
- Physical play: Kids develop motor and social skills when they tackle the playground slide, play tag, and wrestle. They also combat childhood obesity.
- Outdoor play: Fresh air regulates moods, gives sensory input, and focuses attention for learning. (Thus schools that offer more recess tend to see greater academic success.)
- Pretend play: Dress-up and other role-playing games boost social skills, language, and creativity.
With the possible exception of outdoor play, parents needn’t go out of their way to facilitate the different categories. (We all know boxes and random household gadgets make the best toys, anyway.) Given the freedom, kids will make it happen.
THE BIG TAKEAWAY
The AAP urges schools and parents to prioritize play. The U.N. calls play a fundamental human right. Unfortunately, even in wealthy countries where toys and playgrounds are plentiful, busy schedules and safety concerns often get in the way. As Panksepp wrote in an article about ADHD and play deprivation: “At some point in our primate evolution, children had many companions with whom they freely engaged in natural surroundings on their own terms. That time has passed.”
That may be true, but parents can help. You may not feel comfortable opening your door and telling your child to “go play,” but you can seek out enriching play spaces, plan play dates, and most importantly, preserve plenty of unstructured time for kids to do what they’re hard-wired to do best.