Rounding off the summer with a somewhat obvious reminder to let our children play. This, as we bolster ourselves for the onslaught of the school year. Play remains an essential element of childhood and is good for children (of any age). Eating-vegetables-good-for-them but a lot more fun.

Summer has been a gorgeous reminder for me in how much joy I feel when my children roam and play and react and delight. I mean clutch-my-chest moments in just watching them tool around on a scooter, in the lake, or with our puppy in the backyard. Playing cards and laughing about how bad it all goes…..it’s these moments that feel most precious. A no-duh, I suppose, but each summer I’m reminded in a new way. I remember a moment in a Wisconsin lake this summer nose-to-nose with my youngest, the light silhouetting him, as a moment I want to (and plan to) hold onto forever. That tiny time in my life (lasted just seconds) so beautiful and HUGE and dear to me the memory of it almost seems to play in slow motion.

Nothing like that happened with an iPad this summer.

There’s reason not to maintain some of this summer-time play attitude all year. Play and this silliness remain relevant to raising children, and in my opinion, we gotta fight to protect it.

We are learning more and more about how play creates pathways in making us who we are. Children who play at least an hour a day are more creative and better able to negotiate multiple tasks later one in life. It’s true children need to play to learn and relax but also grow and develop — they need the unstructured kind of play that takes no planning. I’m talking go-outside-run around-play-with-traditional-toys-free-play. Not scheduled, structured, pre-defined play with organized sports or Girl Scouts. Play is important enough — especially as technology’s competition for play accelerates — that the American Academy of Pediatrics just published a clinical report this week dedicated to the importance of play. The last report about the same topic was last out in 2007 and since then, additional evidence supports play as critical in a child’s life. The report states:

“The importance of playful learning for children cannot be overemphasized…play is not frivolous; it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.

I mean what if all played with our children for an hour a day with nothing but a few toys or the sky or the park or the backyard? Research finds it might be an affordable and awesome way to spend our lives.

Improving skills around ignoring distractions sounds so good. Play helps build children’s brains allowing for better executive function skills, it improves academic skills, and reduces the negative impacts of stress. It ultimately creates more resilient children. Roaming time, backyard time, play with a nurturing parent cannot be replaced with technology or with tasks. The report ends with conclusions that include a nudge on cultural shifts, including less parent engagement because of working full-time and fewer safe spaces to play, coupled with digital distractions — all of these have limited the opportunity for children to play. A very 21st-century truth.

Not news: the culture in the US has increasingly focused on academic readiness and skill-based accomplishment that leads many families to focus on structured activities to enrich academic results, as early as preschool. I think many of us feel pressure to enroll our children in multiple activities to prepare them for school and their academic achievement. More and more, play may need more airtime. Recess is a crucial class during the school day for learning during the rest of it.

Curiosity and exploration unfurl new skills from 4 to 6 months-of-age up until the teen years. Children will often surprise themselves with accidental accomplishments while playing. They gain confidence and joy but also skill in the discovery. No question that when playing with a parent, children experience joy which helps regulate the body’s stress response.  Unstructured play at any age fosters creativity and drives new skills and wonder. We all know this but data and these policies can help drive the way we protect it in our children’s lives.

Play is one of the most important gifts we share with our children. We want our children to have unbounded playtime without margins and restrictions. We want the opportunities for our children without screens and noise and “true toys—things like blocks and dolls” to play creatively from the very beginning. It’s obvious and true that what our children may need most is a parent’s full attention, time for play, and a place at home to stretch out and roam.

Play Is Good For Children:

Now, more than ever, play is at risk. Hate to sound like an old lady, but I think it’s perilous to avoid making sure we’re protecting time without a ceiling. We all need time to roam around the planet and inside our minds.

  • From 1981 to 1997, children’s playtime decreased by 25%, and 30% of kindergarten children no longer have recess, which has been replaced by academic lessons, according to research published in Advances in Life Course Research. Be the squeaky wheel parent. Ask your school about recess and the amount of time your child gets outside of the classroom. Children with adequate recess have better learning.
  • Play is intrinsically motivated and comes naturally to children, given the chance. “Joyful discovery” ensues.
  • A national survey of 8,950 preschool children and parents found that only 51% of children went outside to walk or play once a day with a parent. Try to make play a daily ritual. Even if it’s a short walk around the block after dinner.
  • And surveys have found as many as 94% of parents have safety concerns about outdoor play. Finding places that feel safe for our families is an essential task to make play be all it can be.
  • Play is a great place for parents and children to bond but also “scaffold the foundational motor, social-emotional, language, executive functioning, math, and self-regulation skills needed to be successful in an increasingly complex and collaborative world.” When a child asks to play – DO IT.
  • Despite research that links television watching with a sedentary lifestyle and the research that confirms it pulls children away from play and increases risks for obesity, higher blood pressure, and ultimately shorter lives. t=The typical preschooler watches 4.5 hours of television per day, according to media research. Limiting screentime is a challenge for many of us, but the AAP has an awesome resource to help your family to create a media plan that sets boundaries for how much time your children are on their devices and/or watching television.
  • I love the final conclusion in the report, “Play provides a singular opportunity to build the executive functioning that underlies adaptive behaviors at home, improve language and math skills in school, build the safe and stable and nurturing relationships that buffer against toxic stress, and build social-emotional resilience.” Everything we ALL NEED for a long and meaningful life.

More play, more roaming, more resilience this year. Yes, please.