“It’s Time to Play!”
by Amira Al-Sarraf

In the midst of our busy lives, how often do we give our children an opportunity to just “go and play?” In his book, The Hurried Child, David Elkind over twenty years ago warned parents of the possible extinction of childhood due to the many stresses on them to grow up quickly. Today, the threat continues to be real as children are swept up into a whirlwind of structured, scheduled activities leaving little time for quiet, creative play.   Even the pervasive influence of technology in children’s lives has taken precious time away from critical types of playful activities that kids need. According to a national Kaiser Family Foundation survey, children in the two- to seven-year-old age group now average about three hours per day in front of screens (Rideout, et al, 2003).

It is widely known by child development researchers and educators that play is vital to the cognitive, social, and emotional growth of children. In a recent TIME magazine article, Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and the founder of the National Institute for Play, is quoted as saying, “If you look at what produces learning and memory and well-being” in life, “play is as fundamental as any other aspect.” The American Academy of Pediatrics also warns that the decrease in free playtime can carry health risks (including stress, anxiety, depression, and of course, obesity).

Through play and hands-on activities, children build a foundation of meaning that provides the basis for understanding concepts in language, literacy, math, science, and the arts. Symbolic numbers, such as the number 5, for example, are better understood once children experience what ‘5’ blocks or beans or socks mean. Opening the doors to concrete learning leads to the discovery of abstract concepts that eventually make sense.

In addition to reduced play time, children are spending less time playing outdoors. From 1997 to 2003, there was a 50% decrease in the proportion of children nine to twelve who spent time in such outside activities as hiking, walking, fishing, beach play, and gardening, according to a study by Sandra Hofferth at the University of Maryland. 

However, new studies suggest that exposure to nature and the outdoors may reduce the symptoms of ADHD and improve all children’s cognitive abilities. The natural environment is certainly a principal source of sensory stimulation and as such is essential for good health and the development of creativity. According to Professor Robin Moore of North Carolina State University, “A rich, open environment will continuously present alternative choices for creative engagement.” These findings should reaffirm the value of children’s freedom to explore and play in the outdoor environment. 

It is now in the hands of parents and schools to ensure a wealth of opportunities for children to actively play both indoors and outdoors using the many simple resources around them.   When some old pots and pans and a bunch of leaves turn into a restaurant under the trees, we can be sure that imagination and children are at play.

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