The Importance of Play!

From Alliance for Childhood:

The Loss of Children’s Play: A Public Health Issue

Children’s health—today and in the future—is a critical public health challenge. Physicians tell us that today’s children will live shorter lives than their parents, while economists predict that the long-term costs of childhood obesity will be catastrophic.

Reversing the decline in children’s health requires a multi-pronged approach. Diet and exercise are already getting increased attention. Another vital but overlooked factor is the loss of free play, especially active outdoor play, initiated and directed by children themselves.

Children used to play for hours each day, burning calories and keeping fit and healthy. At the same time, play helped them socialize with others, develop mental acuity, and reduce stress. With the decline of play, all areas of child development have suffered, but the impact on health and obesity is most alarming.

The decline in children’s play is well documented. Compared to the 1970s, children now spend 50% less time in unstructured outdoor activities. Children ages 10 to 16 now spend, on average, only 12.6 minutes per day in vigorous physical activity. Yet they spend an average of 10.4 waking hours each day relatively motionless.2 A sedentary lifestyle often goes hand in hand with obesity and other health problems. Obesity cannot be overcome simply by exhorting children to eat a healthier diet and exercise more. A successful anti-obesity effort must involve more active play, which has rich benefits for both physical and mental health. Luckily, children are naturally motivated to play.


What Is Needed to Restore Active Childhood Play?

-Time for play: All children need at least 60 minutes of free play each day, preferably outdoors. Recess must be a daily school activity, and should never be withheld as a way to punish a child.

-Places to play: Children need safe places to play within an easy walk from their homes. Ideally these should be playgrounds integrated with natural settings. Opening school playgrounds for afterschool and weekend play would increase available play space significantly. Creating safe routes to schools and parks would allow children to walk and bike more freely.

-Adult support: In many communities children need adult oversight in order to play safely. Staff and volunteers can be trained to support children’s play without directing or dominating it. They can assist during recess, as well as before and after school and on weekends and holidays. This can happen not just in schools but also in parks, zoos, museums, recreation centers, and other places where children gather for play and enjoyment.

Research findings on play and health:

•Physical activity and free play are essential to maintaining a healthy weight and supporting cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development and well-being. Play enhances self regulation, empathy, and group management skills. (Stanford School of Medicine, “Building Generation Play,” 2007; Hirsh-Pasek, et al., A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool, Oxford University Press, 2009)

•The American Academy of Pediatrics links increases in depression and anxiety to a lack of unstructured playtime. It recommends that children spend at least 60 minutes each day in open-ended play. (American Academy of Pediatrics, Ginsburg et al., “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” Pediatrics, January 2007)

•Time spent playing outdoors significantly reduces the severity of symptoms of children with attention disorders. (Kuo and Taylor, “A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention- Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder,” American Journal of Public Health, September 2004)

•A randomized controlled study of 129 children, ages 9 to 24 months, exhibiting stunted development found that weekly play sessions had significant long-term benefits (to age 17) for psychosocial functioning, including reduced anxiety and depression and fewer attention problems. (Susan P. Walker et al., “Effects of Psychosocial Stimulation and Dietary Supplementation in Early Childhood on Psychosocial Functioning in Late Adolescence,” British Medical Journal, July 2006)

•Opportunity for recess has declined in many schools. Yet children who have more time for recess in school are better behaved and learn more. Children with the least amount of recess were more likely to be black and from families living in poverty and with little education. (Barros, Silver, and Stein, “School Recess and Group Classroom Behavior,” Pediatrics, February 2009)

Parents are deeply concerned about the loss of play and the erosion of childhood. They are prepared to take action.

•In a survey of nearly 1,700 parents 80% agreed that children’s unstructured play is extremely or very important; only one in six said it is only somewhat or not at all important. In the same survey, less than 4% said that outdoor play was unimportant. (KaBoom!/Harris Interactive survey, 2009)

•An overwhelming majority of Americans—91%— believe that having a break with physical activity helps children stay focused and learn in the classroom. Nearly 4 of 5 parents believe children aren’t getting enough physical playtime. (Playworks and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “Assessing Recess: Growing Concern about Shrinking Play Time in Schools,” 2008)

•Ninety-five percent of mothers surveyed in the U.S. express deep concern that their children are growing up too quickly and missing out on the joys and experiential learning opportunities of free play and natural exploration. (Singer et al., “Children’s Pastimes and Play in Sixteen Nations: Is Free-Play Declining?” American Journal of Play, Winter 2008)

•Eighty-five percent of mothers said TV and computer games were the number one reason for the lack of outdoor play; 82% identified crime and safety concerns as factors that prevent their children from playing outdoors. (Clements, “An Investigation of the Status of Outdoor Play,” Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 2004)

•Urban parents in particular see their own lack of time to take their children to playgrounds and supervise their play as major obstacles. They identify the need for play supervision so that children can play freely. (KaBoom!/Harris Interactive survey, 2009)

More articles:

The playtime’s the thing

Let the kids play!

The Serious Need for Play

More from the Alliance for Childhood: Time for Play, Every Day: It’s Fun — and Fundamental

There was a time when children played from morning till night. They ran, jumped, played dress-up, and created endless stories out of their active imaginations. Now, many scarcely play this way at all. What happened?

• Over four and a half hours per day watching TV, video game, and computer screens;1

• Academic pressure and testing, beginning with three-year-olds;

• Overscheduled lives full of adult-organized activities;

• Loss of school recess and safe green space for outdoor play.

Decades of research clearly demonstrate that play—active and full of imagination—is more than just fun and games. It boosts healthy development across a broad spectrum of critical areas: intellectual, social, emotional, and physical. The benefits are so impressive that every day of childhood should be a day for play.


Child-initiated play lays a foundation for learning and academic success. Through play, children learn to interact with others, develop language skills, recognize and solve problems, and discover their human potential. In short, play helps children make sense of and find their place in the world.

• Physical development: The rough and tumble of active play facilitates children’s sensorimotor development. It is a natural preventive for the current epidemic of childhood obesity. Research suggests that recess also boosts schoolchildren’s academic performance.2

• Academics: There is a close link between play and healthy cognitive growth. It lays the foundation for later academic success in reading and writing. It provides hands-on experiences with real-lifematerials that help children develop abstract scientific and mathematical concepts. Play is critical for the development of imagination and creative problem-solving skills.3

• Social and emotional learning: Research suggests that social make-believe play is related to increases in cooperation, empathy, and impulse control, reduced aggression, and better overall emotional and social health.4

• Sheer joy: The evidence is clear—healthy children of all ages love to play. Experts in child development say that plenty of time for childhood play is one of the key factors leading to happiness in adulthood.5


• Reduce or eliminate screen time: Give your children a chance to flex their own imaginative muscles. They may be bored at first. Be prepared with simple playthings and suggestions for make-believe play to inspire their inner creativity.

• Curtail time spent in adult-organized activities: Children need time for self-initiated play. Overscheduled lives leave little time for play.

• Choose simple toys: A good toy is 10 percent toy and 90 percent child. The child’s imagination is the engine of healthy play. Simple toys and natural materials, like wood, boxes, balls, dolls, sand, and clay invite children to create their own scenes—and then knock them down and start over.

• Encourage outdoor adventures: Reserve time every day for outdoor play where children can run, climb, find secret hiding places, and dream up dramas. Natural materials—sticks, mud, water, rocks—are the raw materials of play.

• Bring back the art of real work: Believe it or not, adult activity—cooking, raking, cleaning, washing the car—actually inspires children to play. Children like to help for short periods and then engage in their own play.


-International Association for the Child’s Right to Play (Play Day kits): 914-323-5327;

-Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (Annual Toy Guide): 617-879-2167;

-TV Turnoff Network (Take Action page for limiting TV time): 202-333- 9220;

-Playing for Keeps (Play ideas and resources for parents and educators): 877-755-5347;

-All Work and No Play: How Educational Reforms are Harming Our Preschoolers, Sharna Olfman, Ph.D., ed.

-Children at Play: Using Waldorf Principles to Foster Child Development by Heidi Britz-Crecelius

-Earthways: Simple Environmental Activities for Young Children by Carol Petrash

-Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement- Oriented Society by William Crain, Ph.D.

-The House of Make Believe by Dorothy G. Singer, Ph.D. and Jerome L. Singer, Ph.D.

-Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, by Susan Linn

-Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv

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