With the temperatures dropping and the back to school scramble still on, it is easy to start filling kids’ schedules with all sorts of enhancement activities. I feel this is a great time to remind all parents (myself included!) of the importance of free play.
Last August, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a policy statement asserting that pediatricians should issue a “Prescription for Play” at all well child check-ups for kids under 2.
As a mother of two, I find I am often tempted to fill my children’s schedule with activities in order to keep them busy and try to have them learn all they possibly can. I have to constantly remind myself that a gap in the schedule for playdates or unstructured playtime is just as important.
So what is free play? According to the AAP, “free play” is voluntary, with no extrinsic goals. It is fun and spontaneous. To me it encompasses all the joy of childhood. With the constant push towards earlier academic pursuits, as parents and pediatricians we must remember how essential play is for our children’s developing brain. The benefits of play are proven to be seen on molecular, cellular and behavioral levels.
Here are few tips for parents to keep in mind as fall takes off:
1) Prioritize free and unstructured time for your kids: this does NOT include any screen time, of course. Think of vacancies in your child’s schedule as an opportunity for them to grow and create. As a mother, I often worry, what if my children never learn to ice skate, play tennis, speak Spanish, play piano and tap dance, the list goes on and on… Then I realize, of course they can’t learn all of these skills before they are 10 years old! Learning the ability to play is probably more important than all of those.
2) Learn to play yourself: I’ve been striving to be more fun with my kids over the past few years, which meant relearning how to play. If you are a more cautious person (like me), challenge yourself to have more fun playing with your kids. That may mean going down slides, jumping in the pool and dancing. Play is a wonderful stress relief for both you and your children because it decreases your cortisol or stress hormone levels. There is real physiologic benefit to being present and engaging in play.
3) Let your kids and yourself be bored: An opinion editorial article came out earlier this year in the New York Times entitled “Let Children Get Bored Again.” The article quotes Lin-Manuel Miranda who credited his success with unstructured time and a blank piece of paper. Boredom and tedium are sometimes part of life, and our children should be taught to tolerate that not every moment is super exciting, and nothing is going wrong if things are at a slower pace, that’s part of life too. Boredom also gives your children a chance to use their imagination, get creative and occupy their minds in a different way.