New Study: American Academy of Pediatrics Says Doctors Should Prescribe Play

Stop playing around!

If you’re anything like the members of our team, this was a phrase you heard at least a few times when you were growing up, the classic admonishment to get back to more important things. But according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), we might need to be telling kids today exactly the opposite. In a clinical report released in August 2018, play might actually be one of the more important things that we should be doing, especially in childhood. In fact, it’s so important that the AAP is now suggesting that doctors prescribe play to their young patients.

The AAP is now suggesting that doctors prescribe play to their young patients

Why more play?

The AAP has been publishing research on the value of play since 2007, but they have found in new research that they may have been underestimating just how much play can impact the way we learn and develop as people.

“Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and promotes executive function (ie, the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.”

As pressure mounts in early education programs to cover more content and be more structured, the AAP is pointing out that we have to be careful not to take away too much of the playful learning that kids not only love, but need.

What kind of play do pediatricians want to prescribe?

According the the AAP, play:

  • Involves active engagement

  • Is intrinsically motivated

  • Results in joyful discovery

  • Is fun and spontaneous

  • Is voluntary

  • Often creates an imaginative private reality

  • Often contains elements of make believe

  • Often has no extrinsic goals

This kind of play is also “fundamentally important for learning 21st century skills, such as problem solving, collaboration, and creativity [...] that are critical for adult success.” The fact that play is voluntary and intrinsically motivated also challenges the idea that we should be teaching children how to play.

“Explicit instructions limit a child’s creativity; it is argued that we should let children learn through observation and active engagement rather than passive memorization or direct instruction.”

– American Association of Pediatrics

Instead of being strictly structured, play should be something that develops over time, starting with little things like peek-a-boo and growing into fantasy play, fort building, and hide and seek. Pediatrician Dr. Michael Yogman emphasizes that play is less about the tools and toys than about the opportunity to observe, explore, and discover.

“It’s not about fancy toys,” he said. “It’s about common household items that kids can discover and explore,” like putting spoons and plastic containers on the floor “and bang them and see what the child does with them.”

– Dr. Michael Yogman

It’s important to note that there is a balance to be struck between free play and guided play. Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University says that free play is important to help kids reduce stress and develop skills connected to entrepreneurship, while guided play can fuel curiosity and offer different opportunities for exploration. And neither of these things should happen in isolated play spaces. Making better environments for play is “about helping [kids] play and learn in the world, in the homes and schoolrooms and larger environments in which they live and grow.”

Are kids really playing less?

Play can “be threatened [at home], either by too little attention and responsiveness from distracted adults or, in another sense, by too much attention and teaching, of the not-so-playful kind.” We’re also seeing a shift away from offering play at one of the places that children spend most of their time: school.

“In kindergarten classrooms studied in New York and Los Angeles in 2009 [...] teachers reported that there was little or no time to play. Kindergarten had become the new first grade, with much less time for art, or for running and jumping and bouncing [...] and a quarter of the Los Angeles teachers said there was no time at all for free play.”

– Dr. Michael Yogman

This is an especially significant problem given that the skills that we learn from play are the same skills that we need for the 21st Century workplace. As automation and machine learning lead to changes in many jobs, leaders across different industries are predicting that the most important job skills in the future will be exactly the kind of social-emotional skills that we learn from play. Dr. Hirsh-Pasek points out that taking play out of schools is “trying to train our kids to be better computers, but our kids will never be better computers than computers.” Instead, we should be not only making more time in the school day for play, but also creating better environments that encourage play for kids and adults beyond the classroom. Dr. Hirsh-Pasek and her team have installed playful learning opportunities in public places, including puzzle benches at bus stops and chalkboards with open writing prompts in parks to encourage playful interactions out in the community.

How do we prescribe more play?

The AAP has actually recommended that doctors should be encouraging “playful learning for parents and infants by writing a “prescription for play” at every well-child visit in the first two years of life.” Dr. Yogman thinks it’s a great idea, not to shame parents but to say “it’s O.K. to go back and rely on common sense about where you think you can share some of the joy as your child is exploring the world.” Dr. Benard Dreyer from NYU School of Medicine thinks of the prescription as a way to remind people that “[play] is the most important part of childhood [...] It’s how [children] develop emotionally cognitively and in language”. It’s also a reminder that, in our expensive high-tech world, the playing field is actually a lot more level than parents might be led to believe.

“The goal is really validating what I think parents might come to on their own, but are feeling pressured by a culture that says no, they really need to do special video games on an iPad or they need to have every minute of structured time.”

– Dr. Michael Yogman

It turns out that it isn’t the gadgets that teach us the most important 21st century skills, it’s having someone to play with, the freedom to play old games, and the opportunity to come up with new ones.

So while we’re definitely not doctors, we’re prescribing more play for everyone. We’ve now got proof that it’s one of the best ways to learn and we could all use some more time for that. We’ll see you all on the playground!

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