Wednesday, September 5, 2018

“Let Kids Play: Doctors’ Orders!”

So reads the headline in a story by the always insightful Dr. Perri Klass in the latest Science section of the New York Times. The “doctors’ orders” are “The Power of Play:  A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children.” Yes, the American Academic of Pediatrics wrote out a prescription for its own membership:  pediatricians are told to “encourage playful learning for parents and infants by writing a ‘prescription for play’ at every well-child visit in the first two years of life.”

The report characterizes play as “intrinsically motivated, involving active engagement and resulting in ‘joyful discovery.’”  Citing extensive research on the developmental and neurological benefits of play (including such simple interactions as peek-a-boo as helping children, through repetition, “experience the joy of knowing what is going to happen”), the report documents the role of play in children’s physical, emotional, psychological and social development.

Did we need an expert report for this?  That play is not only beneficial but essential to children’s full development should be too obvious to warrant an official statement from the medical profession. But, as the authors note, play is under siege. Many schools have severely cut back on recess, parents feel pressured to provide their children with organized sports or  adult-directed activities, and many neighborhoods lack safe places for children to play.  Also, parents’ jobs and other responsibilities can leave limited playtime.  The “prescription” is not meant to make parents feel guilty but to remind pediatricians that play, like height and weight growth, should be a focus of each wellness visit.

The affirmation of play – free, child-initiated, play – is so welcome that posing a criticism or two doesn’t seem polite.  But limiting the “prescription” to age 2 seems short-sighted.  And  I do wish the esteemed physicians who prepared the report didn’t feel they needed to add an economic justification with the utilitarian rationale that “Kids develop 21st -century skill in play….skills that are crucial for adults in the new economy, that help them collaborate and innovate.”  (Maybe the good doctor needs to play more?)

One of the goals of the report – and of pediatricians’ talking with parents about the need for play – is to give permission for parents (and teachers) to say no to the cultural pressures for video games, competitive and calendared activities and follow their common sense to let the kids play.  And to rediscover play themselves.

Now it’s time to stop reading and go out to play!

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