Even though I have been in the toy industry for years, I was reminded lately about the importance of play. According to the experts who have been studying child behavior for years, play is the primary way that kids learn how to socialize, imagine, create and think for themselves. Play also serves as a way that kids master motor skills and cognitive skills.
What seems to the casual observer to be an afternoon of kids playing house, army, cars or superheroes, is really a precursor in developing stories, working out rules and imagining what doesn’t doesn’t exist. Family game night is actually strategy, logic, basic word and math skills coming to life in a very fun way. The Alliance for Childhood Organization sums it up nicely by saying, “Play – active and full of imagination – is more than just fun and games…child-initiated play lays a foundation for learning and academic success. through play, children learn to interact with others, develop language skills, recognize and solve problems, and discover their human potential. In short, play helps children make sense of and find their place in the world.” So its important that kids are given enough time for unstructured play during the day so these skills have time to develop.
So what’s the problem? Well, according to Dr. David Elkind, author of The Power of Play and The Hurried Child, kids are getting an average of 8 hours less spontaneous play time per week. Instead the time is going to structured sports activities, TV, computer and video game time. Even recess has been eliminated in over 30,000 US schools as districts are looking for ways to increase academic time. I know I learned several life lessons on the Merlin Heights Elementary playground, and I can’t imagine how kids make it through a whole school day without that break to let off steam.
Parents and care takers can help give their kids the power of play by first realizing how important it is to create unstructured play time in their very busy lives. By limiting screen time, especially for preschoolers, it is easier for them to balance in other important play activities. Parents should also review the types of toys in the home and ensure that many of them lead to open ended play. For example, blocks, dolls, cars, action figures, Legos, and play sets can provide hours of immersive play. Sometimes the basics such as finger paints, tricycles and vinyl balls can get kids moving and creating.
In a conference on play last week, Dr. Toy (Steveanne Aurbach) asked the group of thought leaders from Media, Entertainment, Academia and the Toys Industry to close our eyes and remember our favorite toys. It was an amazing exercise. And it was also insightful as many of us could trace what we loved as play into what we love about our work. I would encourage everyone to think about the play that was most important to them – and who they played with. Then do a double check to see if your kids are getting the same access to the power of play.