Health & Fitness

New pediatrician guidelines emphasize value of playtime

Play has also been shown to have a real, physical impact on brain development and overall health.
Play has also been shown to have a real, physical impact on brain development and overall health. Miami Herald file

On a recent rainy, summer day, my wife and I dressed our 18-month old in his swim trunks and took him outside. He had never been in such a downpour. We stomped in puddles, splashed up and down the sidewalk, and picked up colorful leaves. Our son laughed as he rubbed mud on his belly. Not only did we have a fun time and make a special memory, recent guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children,” state that we were also helping our son’s development and growth.

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Andrew Stine-Rowe is a medical student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine working on his medical doctorate and Master of Public Health degrees. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Between educational enrichment activities, learning apps, and high-tech educational toys, there are many options these days to teach your young child. Sometimes it is easy to overlook the value of simple play. The new guidelines from the AAP explain the many ways in which play helps a child develop. Play, whether unstructured at home, outside with friends, or with parents or other adults, promotes thinking, language, emotional and self-regulation skills. Also, the bond that forms between children and their parents in play has been shown to control the body’s stress response and promote physical health.

There are many ways that play helps children to be healthy and grow. Children engaging in free play improve motor skills, allowing them better control how they use their muscles. When our son was splashing rainwater on me in our yard, he was honing his balance and coordination. Free play also builds habits around physical activity, which helps protect against lifelong health risks in obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

One of the most important benefits of play is the development of social skills. Children who play regularly are better able to solve conflict with words in place of action, pay attention and listen to directions, and focus on tasks without constant supervision. Traditional school recess lets children take risks and test social boundaries in a safe environment guided by watchful adults. Studies of playground competition show that it helps children to win and lose with grace. These are key skills in helping kids overcome personal difficulties and social challenges.

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Julia Belkowitz, M.D., MPH, is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Gregg Pachkowski Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Play has also been shown to have a real, physical impact on brain development and overall health. Studies of animals show that play causes changes in the brain at the level of individual cells. These changes help the brain work faster and more accurately. In fact, in one animal study, two hours of play per day led to increased brain size and efficiency. Other physical health benefits have been seen in studies of children who play freely. One study of preschool children with disruptive behavior found that they had better behavior and lower levels of cortisol — a stress hormone — after engaging in 1-on-1 play sessions with teachers.

With so many toys and learning gadgets marketed to parents to help their children learn, it is easy to see how play has decreased in many families. Surveys of parents have shown that many believe the best way to help their children learn is with technology and media. This is incorrect.

In one study, researchers compared preschoolers who watched Baby Einstein with those that played on their own with blocks. The preschoolers who played with blocks were found to have better language and cognitive skills than those that watched the video. In another study, children who played with traditional toys, like puzzles or blocks, had increased quality and quantity of language compared with children who played with electronic toys.

This effect is especially strong when the electronic toys encourage passive watching instead of active interaction. Old-fashioned play with simple toys often does a better job at helping kids grow and learn than media or high-tech toys, and are a lot less expensive, too!

How can a parent harness the power of play for their children?

  • Make sure your child has free play time with toys that encourage engagement

  • Allow children to take safe risks and make mistakes while playing

  • Limit your child’s use of high-tech toys or media that encourage passive watching

  • Spend time playing with your child

  • Visit one of the 270 parks in Miami-Dade County with your child; miamidade.gov/parks

  • Consider learning programs for your children that focus on playful learning instead of passive learning and lectures. For more ideas about how to play with your kids, visit healthychildren.org.

Andrew Stine-Rowe is a medical student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine working on his Medical Doctorate and Master of Public Health degrees. Julia Belkowitz, M.D., MPH, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, contributed to this column. For more information, visit umiamihealth.org/pediatrics.
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