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October 6, 2018
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.”