Recreational Play Can Be Far More Important Than Academics

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We're cutting traditional after-school activities to make time for academic ones, but the role of play in development shouldn't be forgotten.

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Play is important for the emotional, social, cognitive, and physical development of children. In addition to being critical for general health and a preventative against overweight, play develops life skills for children and communication skills among peers and family members.

But because of over-scheduling, over-supervision, lack of appropriate play environments, and too many entertaining screens many children have less access to play time and play spaces than children in the past.

Children living in poverty experience these barriers and more, according to a recent clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Underprivileged children often have less access to recess and school-based creative arts, music, and physical education programs. Additionally, the socioeconomic stressors on poor families often conspire against parents having the time, energy, or skills to engage in play with their children.

Poor children's access to outdoor play spaces may be compromised by the safety of their neighborhoods and the decrease in parks and open spaces in urban areas. Children who are unable to play outside tend to spend more time on screen-based activities such as watching TV or playing video games. Excessive screen time takes a huge toll on mental and physical health and academic achievement

Many urban schools have replaced recess and purely recreational after-school activities with academic enrichment activities to help close the academic achievement gaps between lower-income children and their more privileged peers. While improved academics is an important goal, the report emphasizes that the developmental role of play should not be forgotten and the benefits of play should not be traded off in favor of academics.

According to the report, play's benefits extend to psychological well-being. Play provides an opportunity for a student to shine in areas that are not strictly academic and thus contributes to the child's personal sense of pride and belonging in her school environment. This has the potential to discourage truancy and encourage children to remain in school to complete their education

Twenty-eight percent of schools with children in the highest poverty levels have no recess at all. This impacts a population of children who already have limited opportunities for creative experiences and social play, especially since research that has shown that physical education periods and recess enhance a child's readiness for academic pursuits during the school day. They suggest that the elimination of these pace-changing opportunities may in fact be counterproductive for academic success.

Another barrier to play among lower-income students is that parents in lower-income families may have fewer resources to engage in playing with their children. Being a single parent, juggling multiple jobs and complex child care arrangements, coping with mental and physical health stressors and other socioeconomic pressures all decrease a parent's physical and emotional availability to his or her children.

According to the authors, "play allows for a different quality of interaction between parent and child, one that allows parents to 'listen' in a very different, but productive way. When parents observe their children playing or join them in child-driven play, they can view the world through their child's eyes and therefore, may learn to communicate or offer guidance more effectively."

The authors conclude that there are several specific factors that are conspiring against the role of play in the lives of poor children even more strongly than those challenging their socio-economically-privileged peers. Since play is a developmentally crucial component of childhood, poor children are suffering an additional deprivation that will impact their mental and physical health in both the short and the long term. The report calls on the medical and academic communities to be cognizant of the ways we can all protect the formerly sacrosanct role of play in childhood.

Image: Varina and Jay Patel/Shutterstock.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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Esther Entin, M.D., is a pediatrician and clinical associate professor of Family Medicine at Brown University's Warren Alpert School of Medicine. She writes for TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.

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