By NATALIE DIGATE MUTH, M.D., M.P.H., R.D.
Fifty thousand people gathered for New York City’s inaugural Ultimate Block Party last October. The brainchild of the Play for Tomorrow coalition of educators, health professionals and parents whose main focus is to champion the importance of play in children’s lives, the event showcased the art and science of play. The Ultimate Block Party is slated to debut in other cities across the country in the coming months including Atlanta, Chicago, San Diego and Fort Worth.
The social movement pushing for more child’s play comes at a critical time. With a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report finding that the average child spends more than seven hours in front of a screen each day, and an alarming number of schools eliminating recess and failing to reinstate regular physical activity in the school day, today’s children are largely inactive and lacking a regular opportunity to just play (2010). The Alliance for Childhood recently published a scathing report on the current state of kindergarten, where academic pressures have virtually eliminated playtime from the average five-year-old’s school day (Miller and Almon, 2009). Meanwhile, behavior problems and anxiety disorders have skyrocketed (Ginsberg, 2007).
Most adults can reminisce back to their childhood years and recall what seemed like endless hours of playing—playing pick-up games with friends, riding bikes across town, rollerblading for miles, participating in any number of made-up activities with the rest of the neighborhood kids. Children today are unlikely to share similar experiences. The streets are not as safe. The games are perceived as not as fun when compared to today’s toys, which are products of extraordinary technological advances. Parents are working more, coming home exhausted after a long day and wanting nothing more than a few minutes of respite; TV is a sure-fire way to keep the kids quiet and content. Schools have replaced physical-education classes with more “academic” subjects like English and math, even in the youngest grades. Recess is absent from many school agendas: In 1989, 96 percent of elementary schools had at least one recess; today, only 70 percent of kindergarten classes get a recess period (Ginsberg, 2007). Not to mention suburban sprawl and the difficulty of trying to walk anywhere from many residential neighborhoods, much less to school. Together, these factors help explain why kids are so sedentary. The numbers are startling: Children today have lost 12 hours per week of free time, and have 25 percent less playtime and 50 percent fewer outdoor activities compared to children in the late 1970s. Clearly, children are being deprived of play.
The Benefits of Play
Play encompasses more than physical activity. The Ultimate Block Party breaks it down into six domains (physical, creative, music and dance, make-believe, technology, and language), all of which are considered essential for a child’s optimal development. While physical play is only one domain, many of the other domains, such as music and dance and creative play, overlap and provide opportunities for a child to get moving. During free play, children learn problem-solving skills, practice leadership, expend energy, and develop important social and cognitive skills. Play is most powerful when it is child-directed, child-driven and somewhat spontaneous. Overly scheduled children doing largely adult-directed activities have few opportunities for true play.
The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights believes child-driven play to be so important that it considers play a right of every child. In contrast to passive, sedentary entertainment like watching television, play demands creativity and innovation. Children who play together can create and explore their world while developing skills in sharing, decision-making, conflict resolution, teamwork and language. Play also offers engaged parents a glimpse into a child’s world.
Research studies examining innovative curricula that incorporate and emphasize play suggest these approaches are particularly beneficial in helping children to develop executive function (EF) skills. EF is a marker of cognitive control comprised of inhibitory control (resisting habits, temptations or distractions), working memory (retaining and using information), and cognitive flexibility (adjusting to change) (Diamond et al., 2007). EF skills are essential for success both in school and in life. A brief play period during the school day provides children with the opportunity to engage in physical activity, release energy and get a mental break. Several studies have shown that this mental break actually increases retention of new information and produces more attentive and less fidgety students. Another study also found that having at least one recess period of at least 15 minutes was associated with better ratings of class behavior (Barros, Silver and Stein, 2009).
This widespread lack of creative play and inactivity is alarming. While solving this crisis will require massive environmental and policy changes, for each individual child it starts at home and in the nearby community. With a burgeoning social movement underway, fitness professionals are well positioned to help communities develop strategies to increase children’s play.
First, schools should consider reinstituting recess into every elementary school child’s day. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education advises that recess should be provided at least once per day for at least 20 minutes (2001).
As a fitness professional, you may interact with children and families in pursuit of athletic excellence. You also may offer after-school or evening activity programs for children as part of your efforts to combat the epidemic of childhood inactivity and obesity. Many of the children that you work with are leading heavily scheduled lives with very little downtime for child-centered, child-led and child-driven play. While it is very important for children to be physically active, and athletic prowess may be a source of confidence and recognition in addition to its health benefits, make an effort to assess how much fun, low-stress play the kids you work with get each day. If the children you interact with aren’t getting enough free play, be their advocate when talking with their parents, teachers and school leadership. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following ways pediatricians (and, by extension, other allied health professionals including fitness professionals) can advocate for more play (Ginsberg, 2007):
- Recommend that children be given plenty of screen-free time each day to be creative, reflect and decompress in child-driven free play.
- Encourage parents to set limits to screen time and passive entertainment.
- Emphasize that active, child-centered play is a great way to help kids to become and stay fit and healthy.
- Share the information that free play and unscheduled time is associated with increased resiliency and protective against stress and sadness in children.
- Challenge parents to spend a little bit of time each day in unscheduled spontaneous play with their children.
- Refer a child to his or her pediatrician (who will then refer to a mental health professional) if a child shows signs of significant stress, anxiety or depression.
- Advocate for “safe spaces” for kids to play in under-served neighborhoods. This can include a school, library, community center, or a gym or fitness facility.
- Finally, ask yourself: Do I set a good example for the children in my life by promoting healthful eating and regular physical activity? Is physical activity a family priority? Do I have rules in place limiting screen time?
There is so much each of us can do—the hardest part is getting started. But there has never been a better time to start advocating for increased free play in every child’s life. A grassroots effort in New York culminated in the star-studded and heavily attended Ultimate Block Party. Though the efforts may not be so grand, it’s worth asking: What will your community do to restore play in every child’s life?
Ultimate Block Party – This site includes information about New York’s Ultimate Block Party, including the activities and agenda for the day as well as the science behind the importance of each of the play domains. The Web site also has a link for cities interested in hosting a similar event. The resources section provides links to fact sheets and myriad practical resources for optimizing children’s play.
Kaboom! – A nonprofit organization committed to help communities build playgrounds for children everywhere, Kaboom! started the “National Campaign for Play,” which includes resources for those who want to help bring the play movement to their local communities. Community leaders can apply to host a Kaboom! Play Day or attend a free online training course on topics such as Grantwriting 101 and Working with the Media. The Web site also maps playgrounds and provides a forum to share reviews of the best play spaces in town.
Let’s Move! – Michelle Obama’s mission to stamp out childhood obesity within a generation has increased the attention, resources, and energy going toward improved nutrition and physical activity. The Let’s Move! Web site offers links to many resources to increase physical activity in the community including a link to help find forests, parks and play spaces.
Let’s Move in School – An initiative of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, the Let’s Move in School program offers resources for school districts to adopt a comprehensive, school-based physical-activity program including physical education, physical activity during and after school, staff involvement, and community and family involvement.
National Institute for Play – Founded by a psychiatrist in Carmel Valley, Calif., the National Institute for Play works with educators and legislators to optimize opportunities for children’s play. The Web site summarizes different types of play and offers references for further information.
National Wildlife Federation – The Get Outside initiative of the National Wildlife Federation offers families ideas and resources to get outside and enjoy nature. The Web site also links to relevant legislation including the Moving Outdoors in Nature Act to provide support to recreation and health programs and initiatives.
ACE Operation Fit Kids Curriculum - Developed by the American Council on Exercise to respond to physical education getting cut from many school programs, the Operation FitKids curriculum (available as a free PDF download) is designed for grades 3-5 and grades 6-8, to teach students the extreme dangers of being overweight and the importance of a healthy and active lifestyle.
Ginsburg, K.R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119, 182-91.
Kaiser Family Foundation (2010). Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-to18-year-olds.
Miller, E. and Almon, J. (2009). Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School. Alliance for Childhood.
Diamond, A., Barnett, W.S., Thomas, J. and Munro, S. (2007). Preschool program improves cognitive control. Science, 318, 1387-1388.
Barros, R.M., Silver, E.J. and Stein, R.E. (2009). School recess and group classroom behavior. Pediatric, 123, 431-436.
Council for Physical Education and Children. (2001). Recess in Elementary School: A Position Paper from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
Natalie Digate Muth, M.D., M.P.H., R.D., is a pediatrics resident at UCLA Medical Center, a registered dietitian, and a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). She holds fitness certifications from ACE, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association.