Why It's So Terrible That Poor Kids Aren't Getting Enough Playtime

With a lack of safe places to roam, poor kids in cities are missing out on unstructured play, which is necessary for proper development.

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Children in poor urban neighborhoods need more chances for old-fashioned playtime in their daily lives, says a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). A number of experts have raised concerns that children these days have little time for unstructured play -- which, they say, is important for kids' physical and mental development.

The new report follows another from the AAP a few years ago, which argued that U.S. suburban children are "overscheduled" with formal classes and lessons, leaving them little time for simple play.

"That's not the case for poor children," said Dr. Regina M. Milteer, lead author of the new study. "But they're still not getting free, unstructured playtime," she told Reuters Health in an interview.

One way to help poor urban kids is to "encourage schools to keep recess and phys ed on the schedule."

For poor children, in cities in particular, the problems are a lack of safe places to play, parents who are busy trying to pay for housing and other basics and schools that are cutting out recess and physical education to make more time for academics.

Schools nationwide have been reducing time for recess and phys ed. But those in poor areas, in particular, are feeling pressure to narrow disparities in student performance. "In close to one-third of schools with the highest poverty rates, recess has been completely eliminated," Milteer said.

Nationally, about 70 percent of elementary schools provide recess time every day, according to a survey of U.S. principals out earlier this month. But that's short of what many experts recommend. The American Heart Association says that all children should have 20 minutes of recess each day -- along with two-and-a-half hours of phys ed per week.

According to the AAP, playtime is vital for children's development. Milteer said that unstructured play has unique benefits, like sparking children's imaginations, and teaching them social skills and negotiation. "They learn how to play well in the sandbox," she said.

Milteer pointed to a 2009 study of 11,000 U.S. third-graders which found that kids who regularly had recess time got higher ratings from their teachers on classroom behavior. The findings do not prove that recess, per se, was the reason. But, Milteer said, it makes sense that kids, like adults, are better able to focus if they get a little break time from their work.

That same study also found that kids who lacked regular recess time were more likely to be black, low-income, and live in large cities, versus kids who routinely had recess.

One way to help poor urban kids is to "encourage schools to keep recess and phys ed on the schedule," Milteer said. Cities and neighborhood organizations should also provide more "safe spaces" for kids to play, Milteer said. That could mean moves like keeping school playgrounds open in the evenings and weekends, with supervision.

Milteer said it's also important for parents to remember that those expensive toys that they often cannot afford are not necessarily the best ones for their children's development anyway. Simple toys and games, and time outdoors with their parents, go a long way, Milteer said. "One thing that children always want is attention from their parents."

Image: Zurijeta/Shutterstock.

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Amy Norton is a reporter for Reuters.

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