Play is for Keeps

Susan Oliver, executive director of Playing for Keeps.

Let your mind drift back to those hot and hazy summer days of your childhood, or to the after-school hours when your homework was done, or those cozy winter weekends with your family. Perhaps you played “kick the can” with friends as you roamed the neighborhood, or maybe you hosted imaginary tea parties with dolls and stuffed animals as your guests. Did you ever go on a mountain climbing expedition over a terrain of old tables and chairs in the basement or play dress-up for hours on end? If some of your best memories of childhood are about play, you're not alone. Play has a unique role in everyone's development because it is the way that children explore the world, build skills, exercise their imaginations, and learn through experience. It also brings joy and magic to our world, whatever age we may be.

What Kids Learn through Play Stays With Them Forever

Play, like food, exercise, love, and hope, is an essential building block of healthy development, a critical part of the foundation children need to lead productive lives as adults. That's why one of the most important things you can do for your children is to make sure they have the time and opportunity to play.

If play is so important to healthy development, why are our kids doing less and less of it?

    The reasons stem from a mix of social trends and cultural changes. For example:

  • The numerous demands on working parents mean that many have less time and energy to play with their children or supervise playtime.
  • Because many parents are concerned for their children's safety in a culture they perceive as increasingly violent, unsupervised outdoor play has nearly fallen by the wayside, especially for young children.
  • Schools are placing greater emphasis on core academic subjects. As a result, recess, gym, music, and art classes are often removed from school schedules.
  • Children participate in more organized sports and activities than ever before, and at younger ages. While this is positive in many respects, it reduces their time and energy for less structured play.

Does it matter? Shouldn't our play patterns change in response to cultural shifts?

While our culture has changed, the importance of play in healthy development has not. For example:

  • Experts believe that children don't get enough exercise today through unstructured and outdoor play. This is cited as a leading factor in the rise of childhood obesity.
  • While organized activities can be fun and playful in moderation, experts warn that many children today are “over-scheduled,” and they fear this creates added stress for children and families.
  • Not all children have playgrounds or affordable organized sports programs nearby or even homes full of toys. Unequal access to play opportunities threatens to divide our nation, creating yet another generation of adults who, figuratively speaking, don't know how to play together.

    Parents can promote constructive play... every day.

    Parents and caregivers are children's first playmates, and they have a key role in creating fun, constructive play experiences for their children. The more parents and caregivers understand and embrace the link between play and healthy development, the more they will be equipped to make informed decisions about play. Experts agree that “constructive” play shares these characteristics:

    • It is safe, wholesome, and nonviolent.
    • Stimulates children to develop skills and positive relationships.
    • Inspires children to learn more about themselves and the world around them.
    • Enables children to realize their full potential.
    • Encourages creativity and helps develop a child's personality.
    • Makes learning fun.

    Play is one of the easiest and most natural gifts you can give your child.

    Why not start making your child's life more playful? Remember that play is a child's natural tool for building self-esteem, creativity, and the skills he or she will need to lead a satisfying adult life. Constructive play is child affirming and family affirming. Give a little of your time and imagination, and you'll be doing the most important thing a parent can do for a child. And, you'll have great fun doing it!