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Health & Parenting

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Doctor's Orders: Kids Should Play More

Children Need Free Playtime for Healthy Development
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 10, 2006 -- Forget the mad dash from school to soccer practice to tutoring and then music lessons. What children need today is less scheduling and more playtime to foster healthy development.

A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urges parents to allow children more unscheduled time for good, old-fashioned play to help them manage stress and reach their full potential.

"Play is essential to development as it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children," write report authors Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS, Ed, and colleagues at the AAP. "Despite the benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children."

Playtime Is Healthy for Kids

Researchers say the report, released at a national AAP conference this week, is written in defense of play and against forces threatening free play and unscheduled time for children, such as more single-parent or two working-parent homes, increasingly competitive college admissions policies, and reduced recess and physical education in schools.

They say unstructured playtime fosters children's imagination and dexterity and helps them reach important physical, cognitive, and emotional milestones and manage stress.

In contrast, a loss of free time through overscheduling of planned activities can be a source of stress for children and could lead to depression.

How to Bring Playtime Back

The report recommends several steps to help parents slow the pace for themselves and their children, including:

  • Emphasize the benefits of "true toys" such as blocks and dolls, in which children fully use their imagination, over passive toys such as video games that require limited imagination.

  • Support an appropriately challenging academic schedule for each child with a balance of extracurricular activities. This should be based on each child's unique needs and not on competitive community standards or need to gain college admissions.

  • Be skeptical about claims by marketers and advertisers about products or interventions designed to produce "super children."

  • Remember that each young person does not need to excel in multiple areas to be considered successful or prepared for the real world. Let children explore different interests freely.

  • Choose child care and early education programs that meet children's social and emotional developmental needs as well as academic preparedness.

"The challenge for society, schools, and parents is to strike the balance that allows all children to reach their potential, without pushing them beyond their personal comfort limits, and while allowing them personal free time," write the authors.

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