Why Kids Need Time to Play and What You Can Do to Help
As the pandemic stretches on, many families and educators have faced challenges related to distance learning. To make learning and life better for our kids, solutions range from tech applications to games, projects or even new instructional approaches. Although each of these has tremendous value, we may be ignoring one of the most impactful aspects of learning and wellness: play.
Research confirms that play is essential to childhood development. Now, more than ever, educators and experts are coming together to promote the benefits of play. Neuroscientists have concluded that play-based learning positively affects the development of narrative language and acquisition of grammar, while also increasing children’s strength intellectually, physically and socially-emotionally.
In our fast-paced and tech-centric world, it’s important for educators and parents to recognize the importance of play to help children reach their potential, according to Deb Lawrence, president of the International Play Association’s USA Branch.
Lawrence, who has spent over 35 years in the field of early child care and education, says that even though adults remember playing when they were young, they may be unaware of the value of play in this technology-driven culture.
“I’m really worried that today’s parents may think our smartphones, tablets and computers can replace the active play vital to our childhood, learning and wellness,” Lawrence said.
Beyond technology, Lawrence suggests that another barrier to children having adequate time to play is that families tend to schedule too many extracurricular activities for their children.
“Going from one adult-structured activity, like soccer practice or dance class, to another adult-structured activity is not play,” Lawrence said. “Getting back to what play is and why it is important can help educators and parents recognize that play is the purest form of learning.”
Lawrence says that age-appropriate, structured and intentional play is active, hands-on, nature-and-toy-oriented and child-led. Children should be able to choose what they want to do without adult interference.
“This is where learning occurs,” Lawrence said. “This type of play is not only fun but also challenging, imaginative and developmental.”
Play and Wellness
One of the big takeaways, according to Lawrence and others, is that we need to intentionally create opportunities for young people to be absorbed in screen time less frequently.
Playmakers Institute‘s Dr. Angie Nastovska says that unplugging and connecting with life have become harder than ever. With distance learning, she believes we are slowly impacting the quality of play and ultimately our kids’ development.
“The same parents who often took a strong stance against the negative effects of technology now need to guide their children through online learning and increased screen time,” Nastovska said.
Nastovska suggests that play is important to counterbalance the isolation and fatigue of distance learning, as well as the already impactful effects of technology. “The learning environment during the pandemic should serve as a reminder of what our kids need and how learning is much more than just a school-based endeavor.”
Other educators are also indicating that play is more crucial than ever. Lisa Latimer, iLEAD Agua Dulce Charter School director and play-based learning advocate with IPA USA and the Playmakers Institute, believes that we need to educate teachers and parents together on this phenomenon. “People need to look at play through a different lens and change how they think about play. It is not frivolous,” Latimer said.
However, Latimer sees an urgency here that extends beyond the pandemic and also relates to skills that young people need.
“To thrive in today’s fast-changing world, people of all ages must learn to think and act creatively — and the best way to do that is to focus more on imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting, just as children do through play,” Latimer said.
But the pandemic also weighs on Latimer and she reiterates the importance now of how we help our children navigate through uncertain times. She believes that play serves as a necessary coping mechanism for anxiety and provides a buffer for stress.
“Using play and a playful spirit as a means to let children work with changes and challenges as they occur helps children to make sense of the world around them,” Latimer said. “Now more than ever, play is crucial in the lives of our children.”
Both for distance learning environments and in a post-pandemic environment, Lawrence has some clear advice for parents and guardians.
“Limit extracurricular activities to one activity per week, so children have plenty of time to play outside and to direct their own play,” Lawrence said. “Play with your child when they ask you to play, but let them lead the play.”