California Forum

It’s time for school, but don’t forget the importance of playtime

The new school year is an exciting time as parents, teachers and administrators try to ensure children succeed in the classroom. But it’s also a good time to remember one of the essential ingredients in a child’s success – play.

Play is critical to the physical, cognitive and emotional health of children. The American Academy of Pediatrics says play is so central that it should be part of the very definition of childhood, while the United Nations declares that children have the right to play.

Many forms of play, such as swinging on a swing or climbing a tree, help to build bones and muscles, improve coordination and boost confidence. Playing with simple toys, such as building blocks, helps children develop their intelligence, language skills and imagination. When playing make-believe, children use social and communication abilities such as negotiation, cooperation and sharing – all lifelong skills.

Creative play with words, music and reading is critical to brain development. We know 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs by age 5. Daily exposure to reading, writing, talking, singing and playing helps children develop listening, problem-solving and creative-thinking skills. Reading stories together, especially over and over again, builds vocabulary and helps children learn abstract concepts.

Listening to music, singing along and playing musical instruments can help children develop and recognize patterns, which will assist with language and math skills. Play brings families together and inspires lifelong learning by encouraging children to be active learners through hands-on experiences.

And, let’s not forget: Play is fun.

Unfortunately, children have less time, space and fewer resources for play. The Alliance for Childhood reports that children spend 50 percent less time at play now than they did in the 1970s – and an average of 4.5 hours a day is spent in front of a TV or computer screen. In addition, children have less space for play as parks, pools and community centers reduce services or close due to funding cuts.

The reduction in play has led to drastic increases in childhood obesity, depression and anxiety, as well as other health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

Adults need to take a leading role to create space, time and opportunities for children to play.

At the national level, our government can join the rest of the world in ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United States is one of three countries that has not done so. At school, teachers and administrators can establish reasonable policies for recess, physical education, arts education and experiential learning.

At home, parents – who are their children’s first teachers – can make sure their children have free time every day for self-directed play. Old clothes for dress-up, empty cardboard boxes for fort building, and plastic dishes, utensils and pots and pans for cooking can spark the imagination and provide countless ways to play.

In our community, local governments and citizens can join together to make sure there are safe outdoor spaces for children to play. Plus, we can provide early-childhood teachers and caregivers – including parents and grandparents – with training on the important role of play in education and healthy development.

Together, we need to make sure children have the opportunity to do what they do best – play. When children are playing, they are learning, growing strong, and laying the foundation for lifelong success.