The Importance of Play in a Child’s Development

Play is critical for children’s development because it provides time and space for children to explore and gain skills needed for adult life. Children’s playtime has steadily decreased due to limited access to play spaces, changes in the way children are expected to spend their time, parent concerns for safety, and digital media use.

Between 1981 and 1997, the amount of time children spent playing dropped by 25 percent. During this same time period, children ages 3-11 lost 12 hours a week of free time and spent more time at school, completing homework, and shopping with parents.

What Counts as Play?

Play can be defined as “any spontaneous or organized activity that provides enjoyment, entertainment, amusement or diversion.” When children play, they engage with their environment in a safe context in which ideas and behaviours can be combined and practiced.

Children enhance their problem solving and flexible thinking, learn how to process and display emotions, manage fears and interact with others. Free, unstructured play allows children to practice making decisions without prompted instructions or the aim of achieving an end goal. They can initiate their own freely chosen activities and experiment with open-ended rules.

Children’s playtime continues to decrease as a result of:

  • Electronic media replacing playtime – 8 to 10-year olds spend nearly 8 hours a day engaging with different media, and 71% of children and teenagers have a TV in their bedroom
  • Less time spent playing outside – a study following young children’s play found that kids under 13 years old sometimes spend less than 30 minutes a week outside.
  • Perceived risk of play environments – in one study, 94% of parents cited safety concerns, e.g. street traffic and stranger danger, as a factor influencing where their children play.
  • Limited access to outdoor play spaces-only 20% of homes in the U.S. are located within a half-mile of a park.

As a result of reduced playtime, children are spending less time being active, interacting with other children, and building essential life skills, such as executive functioning skills, that they will use as adults.

Increasing Playtime for Children

To help provide advice to families with different values, styles of play, and communication, health professionals can offer these recommendations:

  • Allow for 1 hour a day of unstructured, free play
  • Limit child’s media time to less than 1 to 2 hours a day
  • No media usage for children under 2
  • Establish “screen free zones” by keeping TVs, computers and video games out of children’s bedrooms
  • Limit “background media” use during playtime and family activities because it is distracting for children and adults
  • Establish a plan for media use, e.g. when and where media is used and length of time child uses media

These are just some of the ways you can re-introduce playtime for your children. If you are unsure of the benefits, or how it can impact your child, you can speak to a professional child psychologist for helpful tips and guidance.

For more information about the importance of play, or to book a consultation, contact Anel Annandale at 021 423 0739 or via email at  anel@childpsych.co.za.

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