“Birds fly, fish swim, and children play.” Those words from Garry L. Landreth’s Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship have resonated with Shay Rocco, a certified child life specialist with Ascension St. John Children’s Hospital in Detroit, since she heard them in college.
Today, Rocco uses a child’s innate ability to play as a way to help comfort hospitalized kids prior to procedures – it’s almost like a natural prescription for play. That’s because, from easing anxiety to building social skills, play boasts many benefits for children.
“Kids are constantly learning through their play experiences,” Rocco says.
In fact, according to a recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, play not only enhances brain function and structure – but it also promotes social-emotional, cognitive and language skills, in addition to helping cultivate bonds with parents and caregivers.
Play is so important for children that the AAP is now suggesting pediatricians write a “prescription for play” at every well visit for patients ages 2 and under.
It’s something Dr. Richard Weiermiller, a Beaumont-affiliated pediatric and internal medicine physician in Rochester Hills, says he plans to incorporate into well visits at his own practice.
And now that kids have such structured schedules, he says, they aren’t really given the chance to just “be kids,” so it’s important for them to have opportunities to play.
“When a child is given the freedom to just play, there’s a marked improvement in intellectual and social development,” Weiermiller says.
Screens and schedules
Smartphones, tablets and all sorts of screens have changed the way kids play. They are accessible and mobile, which is great for families on the go, but that doesn’t mean screens are better than building blocks.
“I think we live in a very technology-based and focused society,” Rocco says. “I have a lot of patients who want to go on YouTube to watch other kids play.”
That behavior, however, doesn’t have nearly the same payoff as the real thing. “We’re not really sparking our creative minds just by watching someone play,” Rocco says.
The AAP breaks “play” down into four different categories: object play; physical, locomotor or rough-and-tumble play; outdoor play; and social or pretend play alone or with others.
Each of the four types of play allow kids to develop language and communication skills, abstract thought, critical social skills, motor skills and more. Play with others teaches kids to negotiate and learn to be cooperative.
Yet when it comes to the busy schedules of today’s families, which include extracurricular activities, homework and studying, there’s often little time left for free play.
“From 1981 to 1997, children’s playtime decreased by 25 percent,” the AAP reports. “Children 3 to 11 years of age have lost 12 hours per week of free time. Because of increased academic pressure, 30 percent of U.S. kindergarten children no longer have recess.”
That’s why it’s up to parents to offer their children these opportunities at home.
“The child’s No. 1 language is play,” Rocco says. It’s how they communicate and explore the world around them – so, from infancy, parents should seek out play opportunities for their kids.
Rocco suggests providing infants with familiar toys and objects, such as stuffed animals, light-up and soft toys and a mobile above their crib.
As kids reach toddlerhood, “that’s where they are gaining a little bit more independence, so that’s when motor skills are developing,” Rocco says.
Peekaboo, bouncing balls, stacking blocks and pounding two cars together are a few ways that kids play during this stage of physical, emotional and language development.
“It’s so important for language development,” she says of play. Parents will notice this vocabulary shift when kids are “playing with a bunch of blocks and able to hold up the block and say the word ‘red.'”
Parents should get in on the fun, too, by getting down on the ground with their kids.
“I always encourage parents to try to engage their kids,” Rocco says. “It’s more than just sitting next to them while they are playing.”
She also suggests parallel play, which involves playing next to your very young children – or setting up play dates for them to do so with other tots. For example, your child might be stacking blocks, but you’re sitting next to him or her playing with a baby doll.
Playing board games or “social” games like Simon Says are other ways to interact with your children. “Play is also being social and learning social interaction,” Weiermiller says.
At his office, Weiermiller sees parents playing the “I spy” game with their kids.
“I think that’s a wonderful moment when there’s nothing to do – just making it a fun moment, a play moment.”
This post was originally published in 2018 and is updated regularly.