Play is The Work of Childhood

It is finally summer!!!! Sunshine abounds.  Pools and tennis courts are open.  School is out! Playgrounds are in!  In this season especially I’d like to remind all of my patients “Play is the work of childhood.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics feels so strongly about play’s role in childhood they issued a Clinical Report in January 2007 entitled “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.”  Apparently the international community values play too because in the AAP’s report they cite the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights which asserts play is so important to optimal child development it should be recognized as a birthright of every child; one that should not be compromised by child labor, war or neighborhood violence.  

Fortunately, our Dupage county children are at a low risk for these confinements on play but they are not immune to other restrictions of free play.  Schools, driven to increase test scores and grade promotion have limited creative periods in even a young child’s school day.  Recess periods, art classes, physical education and music classes have taken a backseat to mathematics and reading curriculums.  Even before school age however, there is social and community pressure to engage in enrichment programs that promise to increase childrens’ socialization, intelligence, school skills and academic achievement. They are hurried into an adult-like schedule of “classes” and “meetings” practically from birth. 

While some time devoted to structured activities is excellent too much is likely detrimental.  More and more of our children are reporting being “stressed out” and depressed.  Childhood sports injuries are on the rise thanks to year round, intensely structured involvement.    Again, to quote the AAP “highly scheduledchildren have less time for free, child-driven, creative play,which offers benefits that may be protective against the effectsof pressure and stress.” 

Every child and every family needs to find the right balance for them.  Some kids need more stimulation; some kids need to be actively removed from the passive entertainment of TV and video games by enrolling in multiple activities.  My caution would be to cut yourself and your family some slack.  Engaging in free, child driven play with your child is a wonderful expression of your commitment to be a great parent; possibly more so than running all around town to ensure participation in the best extracurriculars.  Think about the holidays when the child preferred the box the gift came in to the present itself and turn everyday objects into playthings.  If you truly give yourself to the business of play you will be surprised how fulfilled, how tired and yet how satisfied you and your children can be.  As the Greek philosopher Plato said, “You can discover more about a person in one hour of play than in a year of conversation.”  Seize the day and play! You and your child are sure to enjoy.

Dr. Kerry Sheehan