New Guidelines on Play – For Children and Adults

This month, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a report outlining the importance of play for development. The report asked parents to engage their children in playful learning and urged pediatricians to “prescribe play.” The main tenet of the report was that play is not frivolous; rather, it is imperative for social-emotional and cognitive development, self-regulation, and for prosocial learning.

As evidence, the report details numerous research studies that demonstrate the positive effects of play early in life. For example, research shows that preschool children who were given blocks to play with for six months showed improvements in language development, likely because parents talked to their children more during play. Other research shows that physical play, like recess, promotes attention and brain functioning, which is important for focusing in classroom settings. Researchers hypothesize that pretend play – like pretending a banana is a phone or playing with an imaginary friend – allows children to practice social norms while also testing, experimenting, and bending the rules without real world consequences. Indeed, research shows that pretend play improves children’s ability to make inferences and reason about hypothetical events.

Play is also critically important for parents, too. For instance, the AAP outlines the importance of play for building healthy parent-child relationships. By practicing give-and-take exchanges, parents can become better attuned to their child’s non-verbal cues from a young age. Play can also reduce parent stress, which undoubtedly all parents experience.

When parents play with their children, they can promote learning by subtly guiding their children toward a certain learning goal. Guided play is important because it allows parents to scaffold play in a way that still gives the child agency to explore and create, but at the same time the parent can ask questions and make comments that direct the child toward a particular goal. Indeed, research shows that children who were taught the names of shapes through guided play showed improved shape knowledge compared to children who learned through free play or instruction. Play therefore promotes parent-child bonding but also can be a powerful way to help children learn new, challenging concepts.

The same week the AAP released its report on the importance of play, LEGO released a report showing that parents and children aren’t getting enough play. In a survey of more than 12,000 parents and children, researchers at LEGO found that 61% of parents admit that life’s demands, like chores and smartphones, get in the way of play. At the same time, four out of five children reported that they wished their parents would play with them more.

The researchers also found a strong link between play and happiness: Families that played together for five hours or more a week reported they were happier than families who played for less than five hours a week. Importantly, parents understand the critical role of play, with 95% of them saying that they believe play is essential to their child’s well-being and 91% saying that it is good for their own well-being and happiness.

Paired with the AAP’s report, it’s clear that parents and pediatricians know that play is important, but sometimes struggle to incorporate play during their hectic, overscheduled lives. The release of these reports also comes at a time when play in early education is being replaced by more structured instruction or test-prep. Practitioners and researchers seem to be urging parents and teachers to advocate for playtime, recess, and a playful approach to learning. At the very least, these reports are a reminder to parents of the sanctity of play for the family as a whole.