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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

The Importance of Play

August 12, 2013

By Claire McCarthy

Boston Children's Hospital

It's a sad commentary on our society when the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has to issue a report reminding parents and doctors that it's important for children to play.

The October 2006 report, called "The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds," points out that some children aren't being given adequate free time just to play.

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Childhood Has Changed

There are many reasons for this trend:

  • Increased academic demands, due in part to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, have caused schools to cut back or eliminate recess time in favor of more time spent on reading and math.


  • Parents receive messages from the media and society that they should be building every skill or aptitude possible in their children from an early age. As a result, parents feel that they must enroll children in lots of activities, and buy them "educational" toys, videos or other gadgets rather than just letting them play.


  • The college admission process has become more rigorous and parents feel that they must start early to build their child's resume through academics, sports, volunteer activities and other achievements. For some families applying to private schools, the resume-building starts as early as preschool.


  • Secondary schools feel judged by how many of their students are accepted to top colleges. So they push students to have rigorous academic schedules, take Advanced Placement courses and enroll in preparatory classes for entrance exams. This leaves students with little free time.


  • Children are spending more time watching television and playing video games rather than engaging in active, creative play.


  • There are more families with single parents or two working parents, and fewer families with grandparents and other family members who can care for the children while parents are at work. This means that more children are being enrolled in daycare or afterschool programs where there is less time for free play.


  • In many communities, there are very few — if any — places for children to play safely outside.

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Play — More Than Just a Good Time

The lack of unscheduled and independent time for children to get back to the basics of play worries the AAP because:

  1. Play is important for child development. Through play, children explore the world, practice decision-making skills and discover interests. They also learn to work in groups, negotiate and share. Play prepares children for navigating a complicated world — and for future leadership.
  2. Play is important for physical health. Children who don’t get active play time and who spend hours in front of a television or computer screen are far more likely to be overweight.
  3. Play is important for mental health. Unstructured time allows children to relax and decompress — something all of us need. Childhood and adolescent depression is increasing, and some experts believe that the decrease in free play time is part of the cause. Without enough play time, we are likely to see even more depression, stress and anxiety in our children.
  4. Play in schools is important. It encourages students' academic, social and emotional development. Play also helps children learn. Studies have shown that children learn better and adjust to school better when they have breaks with time to play.
  5. Play is important for parents and families, too. Joining in on play can help parents understand their children better—and build better relationships with them. Spending time together as a family helps nurture children, guide them, and teach them the values they need to be happy, successful and resilient.

It's not that signing kids up for activities or buying educational products is all bad. Activities offer opportunities for exercise, socializing and learning skills. Educational products can make a difference for many children. Some communities and children, especially poorer ones, need more activities and enrichment rather than less. The challenge is in finding the right balance for each child and each family.

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Protect Playtime

We can't let play be lost. It's too important for our children's health, happiness and future. Here are some ideas for preserving a pastime that seems to be in jeopardy:

  • Make sure your child has downtime. Every moment of his life shouldn’t be scheduled; he needs time to himself every day.


  • If your child is involved in activities, watch her carefully for any signs of stress: acting sad or cranky, poor appetite, sleeping problems, trouble with friends or school. If you see any of these, she may be overscheduled. Talk to your doctor for advice.


  • Don't believe everything you hear or read about what's necessary for your child's success. Love, nurturing, and creative play make more of a difference than the latest computer software or piano lessons.


  • Play with your child. Join in a tea-party. Make up stories together. Help build a castle. Your child will love it, and you'll be building stronger bonds with her.


  • Spend time together as a family. Have movie nights and game nights, or go for walks together. This time is just as important — more so, actually — than soccer practice.


  • If your child is getting ready to apply for college, help him keep some perspective. Yes, he needs to do his best. But if he does, he'll find a college that's a good match for him.


  • Turn off the TV and computer. Get your child moving and thinking!


  • Buy toys that encourage the imagination, like dolls, blocks, paints and dress-up clothes.


  • Read to your child every day. It's a great enrichment activity — and a chance to snuggle.


  • Work with community leaders to create safe places for children to play.

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.

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