Could swinging on the monkey bars do as much for your child’s education as learning multiplication? Pediatrician Rebecca Lasseter, MD explains the importance of play time.

Child Health | 5 years ago

More Than Fun: The Importance of Play

Could swinging on the monkey bars do as much for your child’s education as learning multiplication? Pediatrician Rebecca Lasseter, MD explains the importance of play time.

The non-physical benefits of play

Time spent playing tag, skipping rope and hop-scotching is never time wasted. Serious research on play – yes, really! – continues to tell grownups that kids need this time, not only for their physical benefit but for emotional, social and even brain development. “Beyond the obvious benefits of regular exercise, play has such an important role in the mental and cognitive well-being of kids,” says Rebecca Lasseter, MD, of Atrium Health’s University Pediatrics.

Practice makes perfect

Play provides children with a context for learning, meaning it’s an opportunity for them to “practice” being a good member of a classroom or a family or a community. Standing in line, taking turns, negotiating rules, cheering a friend on, helping someone who stumbles: These are all important social skills children get to practice while playing.

“Depending on personality types, some kids are more social and willing to play with other kids,” says Dr. Lasseter. “That doesn’t mean that a child can’t be encouraged to play, either with family members, one or two other friends, or in small groups at school or at home.”

And, of course, there are as many different ways to play as there are personalities on the playground. Through make-believe, games of pretend, dress-up and other unstructured play, children practice and reinforce the social cues and roles they see around them. Playing “restaurant” gives them a chance to write and draw menus, set prices, take orders and make out checks. Playing “library” allows kids to stack books on a shelf, help others make a selection and complete a check-out process on a keyboard (the best kind is one that’s not even attached to anything)!

Winning every time

Make-believe games also encourage children to model polite conversation, problem-solve and practice different emotional responses. Suzie the vet being “angry” that Mark is late for his stuffed elephant’s vet appointment allows Suzie and Mark to practice apologies, excuses and probably a few giggles.

“Play provides rich learning opportunities and leads to children’s success and high self-esteem,” says Dr. Lasseter. Allowing children to feel successful and capable is one of the most important things the grownups in their lives can do. Simply by allowing – and encouraging – children to engage in creative play, we can accomplish that and have fun at the same time.

Indoor activities, quiet make-believe and board games all offer benefits, but a rousing game of hide-and-seek in your backyard or swinging alongside a buddy on a community playground provide an even larger stage on which to navigate social skills. Monkey bars, it turns out, may be as important to an elementary schooler as multiplication flash cards.

“Whether it’s a game of four square, Red Rover or kickball, team games and sports allow kids to learn to work together, sharpen problem-solving skills and forge or strengthen friendships to grow through,” says Dr. Lasseter.

A global movement

There is such a strong groundswell of support for play time for kids that organizations have popped up all over the world rallying to keep recess as part of the school day – and to promote play in general throughout communities. Even the United Nations has formally recognized that children have a right to engage in play, indicating just how important play is to a little person’s ability to thrive in the world. The International Play Association (IPA) helped spur the UN to action. Check out their compelling case here

Looking for more ways to help your family stay healthy? By eating more fruits and vegetables, being physically active for at least one hour per day, limiting recreational screen time, and avoiding sugary drinks, your family can join the 5210 League and make the pledge to be healthy together.