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October 6, 2018

Let’s Play! Why Playing with Your Kids Might be the Best Thing You Do For Them

By Anu Varma Panchal

When Kelley Parris’ son was little, they came up with a fun game to play. “We’d pick one word from the dictionary and build a story around it during the day,” says Parris, executive director of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County. Mother and son would come back to the word repeatedly as they continued building their story, and Rocky got a treat every time he worked the word into the game.

It’s the sort of simple game that takes little time and resources—but has potentially huge benefits. Parris believes that play is as important, if not more so than anything else kids should be doing, including language acquisition and educational enrichment.

“Play teaches meditation and emotional intelligence,” says Parris. “Compromise, sharing, respect in other’s abilities, ability to help others, tolerance—these are all skills learned through play.”

Free play teaches children these skills and also how to self-regulate, things they’ll need to become kind, tolerant, creative and productive adults. In fact, free play is so important that the American Association of Pediatrics released an August 2018 report entitled “The Power of Play” that discusses how play is imperative for the kinds of collaboration and innovation that will be needed for today’s world. Dr. Michael Yogman, the lead author of the report, states that the “benefits of play cannot really be overstated in terms of mitigating stress, improving academic skills and helping to build the safe, stable and nurturing relationships that buffer against toxic stress and build social-emotional resilience.”

The report, which will be published in the September issue of Pediatrics, connects play to improved behavior and academic results. However, it also sheds light on research that shows how little play children actually experience today. Children’s playtime has decreased by 25 percent from 1981 to 1997, and 30 percent of kindergarteners have seen academics replace their recess. The typical preschooler watches 4.5 hours of television a day, and only 51 percent of children surveyed go outside to walk or play once a day with a parent. Things have come to such a pass that the AAP is suggesting that pediatricians actually write a prescription for play, at least during the first two years of life.

Play doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Peekaboo with an infant, hide and seek with a preschooler, a board game with all your kids—it all counts. Children not only learn language and behavior through play, but they also learn that their parents aren’t afraid to be silly and have fun with them.

“If we could all learn those lessons from play, we would eliminate bullying from society,” says Parris.

As for Rocky, her little son she played word games with? He’s 34 today and a doctor.

“I hope all that healthy play contributed to it in some way,” Parris says. “He’s also a fascinating storyteller, and that comes directly from our game.”

Seven Ways to Play in Tampa Bay!

  • Since 1999, Champions for Children’s Baby Bungalow has worked in conjunction with the Healthy Start Coalition and Children’s Board of Hillsborough County to host developmental playgroups, baby sign language classes and music classes, among other offerings. To find out which of their 10 playgroup locations is near you, contact them at [email protected] or call 813 673 4646 (ext 1152).
  • The Children’s Board also sponsors Free Tuesdays at the Glazer Children’s Museum. On the first Tuesday of every month, admission is free from noon to 7 p.m. https://glazermuseum.org/freetuesdays
  • The Children’s Board of Hillsborough County’s six Family Resource Centers around Tampa Bay offer numerous classes and play sessions for babies and children, as well as classes and workshops for parents. Visit http://www.familysupporthc.org/programs to learn more.
  • The public libraries offer a wealth of resources for little ones, as well as playful activities and colorful play areas. At some area libraries, you can even check out a free pass to several local museums! Check out http://hcplc.org, http://www.pplc.us/ and https://www.pascolibraries.org/ for activities and calendars.
  • It’s Florida, so we can be outdoors pretty much year-round! Check out our fantastic parks systems for splash pads, playgrounds and facility information. https://www.tampagov.net/parks-and-recreation, and http://www.stpeteparksrec.org/
  • Many area museums, such as Great Explorations https://greatex.org/ and the Dali Museum https://thedali.org in St. Petersburg, and the Tampa Bay History Center https://www.tampabayhistorycenter.org/ and MOSI https://www.mosi.org/ in Tampa, or the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village in Dade City https://www.pioneerfloridamuseum.org/ all offer hours of creative and imaginative play.
  • Combine visits to some of our beautiful flora and fauna with fun in splash pads and play areas when you visit ZooTampa https://zootampa.org/ or the Florida Aquarium https://www.flaquarium.org/

Rules of Engagement (source: American Association of Pediatrics):

  • Play can start as early as you want it to. Watch your infant and respond to his nonverbal behavior. When she smiles, smile back. Peek-a-boo is always a winner!
  • If you’re checking out a school or daycare center for your little one, see what kinds of playtime opportunities are available. The AAP wants educators, doctors and parents to advocate for and protect unstructured play in school, including recess.
  • Educators, especially of the littlest ones, should follow kids’ curiosity and focus on playful learning.


Originally published in the October 2018 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.