Pediatricians can provide a simple prescription to parents to increase their child’s social-emotional, cognitive, language and self-regulation skills: interactive play. In a report issued last summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics pointed to mounting evidence of the importance of developmentally appropriate play in early childhood development. It notes that the benefits of interactive play include boosts in creativity and critical thinking, as well as increased resilience resulting from the nurturing relationships that play fosters.
“With so much emphasis on how important the early years are to child development, many parents assume that they need to start emphasizing academics during that time. But in reality, it’s free or guided play that is potentially the most beneficial,” says UCLA pediatrician Carlos F. Lerner, MD. “For parents to enter their child’s world and directly interact with that child is more valuable than going through flash cards or investing in educational software or TV programs.”
Dr. Lerner says the push by pediatricians to promote the benefits of play is akin to longer-standing efforts to encourage parents to spend more time reading aloud to their children as a key component of their language development.
The “prescription” recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics endorses play that is “intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement and results in joyful discovery.” Object play, physical play, outdoor play and social or pretend play, alone or with others, all are described as beneficial, whereas excessive screen time is discouraged.
“Play teaches children how to think and make decisions that will allow them to participate effectively in society, as well as helping them form social relationships with their peers and nurturing relationships with their parents,” says Gregory C. Dann, MD, a UCLA pediatrician in Manhattan Beach. Ideally, Dr. Dann explains, children’s exploration should be fueled by both self-guided play and adult-guided activities in which they are assisted toward a desired goal.
Filling the play prescription has taken on greater urgency in light of several societal trends, Dr. Lerner says. These include the growing concern about childhood obesity as many children lead more sedentary lifestyles. Also worrying, he says, is the explosion in the role of screens — computers, smart pads, phones, televisions — in the lives of young children, particularly as substitutes for face-to-face interactions and time that could be spent in free or structured play activities. As more parents work full time and many neighborhoods offer fewer safe places to play, the amount of playtime is further reduced.
Finally, there is the growing emphasis on early literacy and math skills, with the push for academic achievement starting as early as preschool, often at the expense of playful learning. “While increasing focus is given to structured academic learning to promote future success,” Dr. Dann concludes, “it’s the socio-emotional development that children receive from play that will allow them to become happy, well-balanced adults.”