HEALTH SPOTLIGHT: Free Play in Children Measurably Enhances Their Development

By  //  August 31, 2018

aap encourages member pediatricians to routinely prescribe increased playtime for their patients

Authors of new AAP study state that the benefits of play cannot be overstated in terms of mitigating stress, improving academic skills and helping to build safe, stable and nurturing relationships that buffer against toxic stress and build social-emotional resilience.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Space Coast Daily is delighted to welcome Dr. Christopher Johnson as a guest contributor on issues of child health and well-being. With 35 years of experience practicing pediatrics, pediatric critical care (intensive care), and pediatric emergency room care he is committed to educating parents on how best to meet the needs of the ill and injured child in today’s often confusing and complex healthcare system.

 In this article, Dr. Johnson reports on a new study showing the link between free, unstructured play and increased brain development.

 The study, titled “The Power of Play” by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) blames an increase in strict scheduling, more screen time and parents’ safety concerns as reasons why play time has dropped by as much as 25 percent over the last 30 years.

As a result of these findings, The AAP is now advising its member-pediatricians to prescribe playtime to kids when they come in for wellness exams and check-ups.

— Dr. Jim Palermo, Editor-in-Chief

In these days of “helicopter parents” meticulously planning all aspects of their child’s day it’s useful to remind them of what common sense has always told us: unregulated and unplanned play is vital to a child’s development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued a useful policy statement about this issue. The authors give information both about the positive aspects of play and the negative consequences of the lack of it:

“Research demonstrates that developmentally appropriate play with parents and peers is a singular opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain.”

“When play and safe, stable, nurturing relationships are missing in a child’s life, toxic stress can disrupt the development of executive function and the learning of prosocial behavior; in the presence of childhood adversity, play becomes even more important. The mutual joy and shared communication and attunement (harmonious serve and return interactions) that parents and children can experience during play regulate the body’s stress response.”

True play is an activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, and results in joyful discovery.

The authors also point to some of the unintended adverse effects of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, with its emphasis on highly structured activities designed to measure objective outcomes like test results, extending down into the earliest primary grades and even to preschoolers.

True play is an activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, and results in joyful discovery. Play is voluntary and often has no extrinsic goals; it’s fun and often spontaneous. That’s the point. Our children need it to develop important life skills.

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Christopher Johnson, MD

Dr. Christopher Johnson received his undergraduate education in history and religion at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1974. He earned his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1978 from Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minnesota, then trained in general pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Children’s Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, followed by training in pediatric infectious diseases, hematology research, and pediatric critical care medicine at the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine. Dr. Johnson is certified by the American Board of Pediatrics in general pediatrics and in pediatric critical care medicine and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Dr. Johnson, who has been named to a list of  The 50 Best Mayo Clinic Doctors — Ever,” devotes his time to practicing pediatric critical care as President of Pediatric Intensive Care Associates, P.C., as Medical Director of the PICU for CentraCare Health Systems, and to writing about medicine for general readers. His popular website/blog and four books provide a wealth of information and answers to practical questions related to child health issues.