Let Them Play!

Photo: Andrew Lightman

I’m a child psychiatrist on Capitol Hill, and on my way to work the other day I happened to pass by the playground of Brent Elementary School. Kids at recess were running, kicking balls, climbing, and chasing one another. A group of girls were acting out some complex story in the corner. Two boys were wrestling, keeping it just to the side of the line where a teacher wouldn’t intervene. I found myself smiling. Their energy was contagious.

But what makes play so wonderful for children? It turns out it’s not just pent-up energy run amok. We know from scientific studies that play teaches kids how to make decisions, cooperate, solve problems, and learn new skills. Animal studies show that play activates the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain involved in planning and self-control. Play helps children learn social skills, which are a strong predictor of later academic success. High rates of early imaginative play predict higher levels of creativity later in life. Nobel Prize recipients and MacArthur “Genius” grant winners have reported a high level of childhood engagement in “make-believe worlds.” And then there’s the physical benefit: the more outside play kids get, the more apt they are to have a normal body weight.

What can parents do to encourage healthy play? Here are some tips that I’ve found helpful as both a parent and in my private practice:

  1. Be playful yourself. Maybe you’re not up to the monkey bars or playing “Pretty Pretty Princess” for the fifteenth time this week. But playfulness is not just for the playground or toy room. You can make up silly rhymes together, count the steps it takes to circle the block, or even lie on the couch with your child and see how long you can keep a feather floating in the air with just your breath.
  2. Choose toys without batteries. Any toy that talks is telling you the “right” way to play with it. But a ball or a stick or an old-fashioned doll encourages kids to figure out how to make the most of it – which is the sort of mental freewheeling that helps brains forge those wonderful prefrontal cortex connections.
  3. Cull your toy collection. Kids get overwhelmed with too many choices. A clean, uncluttered play space with well-chosen toys encourages more organized and imaginative play.
  4. Don’t over-schedule your child. Make time every day for unstructured play, especially if your child is younger than 10.
  5. Tolerate a little chaos. Sometimes the couch cushions are needed for forts and the plastic bowls are going to become hats.
  6. Let play happen where it happens. On the walk to school or the store, allow that extra minute of hopping on the sidewalk squares. “Hurry up” is a phrase I know I say all too often to my own kids, but I’m trying to be aware of it and use it only when I am truly late.
  7. Don’t get stuck on the “right way” to play with a toy. Unless a kid is going to break something or hurt someone, let their natural creativity lead the way.
  8. Get outdoors. Studies show that when kids are in nature they have less stress and fewer ADHD symptoms, and play more cooperatively and creatively. This doesn’t mean you have to take a hike or organize an expensive ski trip. Take an hour to explore Fern Valley or the Children’s Garden at the National Arboretum, a short drive from the Hill.
  9. Limit screen time. This seems obvious but is hard to do in practice.  Think of screen time as junk food: kids love it, it keeps them quiet for a little while, but you wouldn’t want to make it the bulk of their diet.
  10. Just because they are waiting in line or in a car doesn’t mean they have a constitutional right to play on your phone. Boredom is a great opportunity for kids to draw, tell you about something fun they did, or dream up a new game.
  11. No screen time when friends are over. All those wild ideas that kids bounce off each other and build into elaborate new games don’t happen when attention is fixated on a screen.
  12. Start early. If you have a baby or toddler, now is the time to evaluate your relationship with your smart phone and decide how much screen time you want for your child. Now is the time to set rules about the kinds of toys you want for your kids and to get into the habit playing outside every day weather permits. This is an investment in your child that will not only strengthen her brain but bring you both decades of joy.

The good news for Hill parents is that we live in a close-knit community where kids run with other kids. Parents don’t need to drive their kids all over creation to find a friend. But children, especially young ones, do still need parents to help build their hyper-local kid community. It may be as simple as sitting on the front stoop and giving your toddler a bucket of chalk, and waiting to see which neighbors stop by to join the fun.

Further Resources

Alliance for Childhood: www.allianceforchildhood.org
National Institute for Play: www.nifplay.org
Association for Play Therapy: www.a4pt.org

Meg van Achterberg, MD, is board certified in general psychiatry and child and adolescent psychiatry. She is the founder of Capitol Hill Child Psychiatry PLLC.


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