American Academy of Pediatricians Recommends Play As Vital Part Of Child Development

It's almost a bit ridiculous that it's come to this: trained clinicians having to 'prescribe' play to parents to encourage proper development. It’s almost a bit ridiculous that it’s come to this: trained clinicians having to ‘prescribe’ play to parents to encourage proper development. Yet, that’s what the newest report from the American Academy of Pediatricians does — encourages pediatricians and clinicians to recommend ‘play’ as a routine part of a child’s well-checks.

The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) just released a report that highlights play as being an essential part of healthy child development. The report encourages parents to ensure their children get enough playtime, but recommends educators do so as well in their teaching methodology.

In the report, renowned clinicians claim that play is not just a frivolous activity, but one that enhances the structure and function of developing brains, as well as promotes executive function skills that are pivotal for school success.

Additionally, the report warns of the dangers of taking play away from children, particularly in learning situations, as the absence of safe and stable relationships and play in a child’s life can lead to toxic stress disrupting their executive functioning development. Play makes a big difference in how children learn prosocial behavior. It also affects how they handle other childhood adversities.

Related: Should Your Child Read In Kindergarten?

The report details that the definition of ‘play’ may be broad, but says the consensus agreement tends to highlight it as an intrinsically motivated activity that incorporates active engagement and rewards with joyful discovery. According to clinicians, play is voluntary, fun and often spontaneous, and those children given opportunities for lots of play develop better executive functioning skills, which directly relate to school readiness, according to research.

The report lists that not only is play pivotal for school readiness, but for appropriate brain development as well. The researchers cited neuroscientist and psychologist Jaak Panksepp who suggests that play is one of seven innate emotional systems in the midbrain. Research in animals shows that play leads to changes in the brain at the molecular, cellular and behavioral levels, and these, in turn, promote better learning and prosocial behaviors.

The report also detailed the optimal situations for children to learn best, based on brain research. They support environments where children are engaged in age-appropriate activities that include guidance and conversation, not drills or rote memorization. Because of their understanding of early brain development, they believe that learning is best when facilitated by a child’s intrinsic motivation in play rather than extrinsic motivations like test scores.

Further, they believe that environments in which children feel safe and stable, and encouraged by their teacher, are ones that will be best suited for the child to learn. According to the researchers, they believe this environment is needed to promote resiliency in children and done through free and guided play.

The report lists recommendations for pediatricians to share with parents. These recommendations include: advocating for maintaining unstructured play time for children (recess and/or physical education) as well as advocating for preschool curriculum and educators that focus on learning through play rather than programs that support didactic learning.

So what does all this mean for parents? For teachers?

Well, as a parent and former early education teacher, it’s not news. As we’ve developed the ability to watch the way the brain works and learns in the last several years, we’ve begun to understand this more. Still, traditional legislation that believes higher test scores mean better learning exist, and in that, teachers’ and often parents’ hands are forced into insisting on ridiculously developmentally inappropriate standards for children and measurements of their ‘learning.’

Related: How Today’s Kindergarten Is so Different Than It Used to Be

Hopefully, though, the trend is changing, as this report by some of the country’s most acclaimed academians and clinicians agree that our children are suffering because we’re losing the focus on play. For many years, I’ve said that our education system has been trading gold for sand as we’ve insisted that ‘Your Baby Can Read!’ and kids were delayed if they weren’t reading in Kindergarten.

I believe Mr. Rogers said it best when he said that play was serious learning for children. And now, with this report, maybe more parents will feel empowered when it comes to advocating for what’s best for their children’s brains.  It’s not earlier learning of sounds and letters, more homework and developmentally inappropriate standards that kids may meet, but at a great cost in other neural developments.

It’s simple — play more! Let your child play more. Doctors’ orders!

 Photo credit: Robert Kneschke / Shutterstock

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