Our current culture is less friendly to playtime than it used to be. So much so that just last fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a policy statement titled, "The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children." But while new research emphasizes the importance of play to children's development, many parents are still more than willing to sacrifice playtime for the peace and absorption an iPad delivers a child. Yet playtime is more beneficial to the developing brain in different ways, both in structure and function.
Michael Yogman, M.D., chairman of the AAP and lead author of the play statement says today's parents feel pressured by a culture that says kids really need to do special video games on an iPad or they need to have every minute of structured time.
It's simply not true.
Play is how children develop emotionally, cognitively and with language. So the balance a child needs is something parents need to come to on their own in helping their children develop in healthy ways.
SO ... HOW SHOULD CHILDREN PLAY?
While playtime is essential for developing kids, doctors also say children benefit from unsupervised play. In a study out of University College London, research shows that having unsupervised playtime actually makes children more social and active. And, according to an article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, unsupervised free plays helps kids develop important skills like creative thinking, analyzing patterns, using empathy, regulating emotions and more. Pediatricians say that free play is necessary for children to develop into healthy, happy well-adjusted people later in life.
This in no way negates the importance of playing with siblings and friends, however. Solo play just needs to be a part of the mix in your child's life.
You want to make sure your kids are being social, that they're building relationships with peers and developing those skills, but mixing in solo playtime will allow them to learn how to solve problems and more complex issues with friends as they develop, says the book Purposeful Play: A Teacher's Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day (Heinemann; April 2016).
Kids need to be able to play without an adult directing them because that's the way children learn. In between all of the messages parents get about how screens and tablets and phones and laptops are the answer that's going to help children learn and become advanced in their development is this truth: Imaginative play is where the real magic of learning happens. Playtime is an indispensable tool in a child's tool box.
HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO PLAY ALONE
While many parents believe that they should constantly play with their children, that actually can create stress — and your child can pick up on it, says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek in the book Einstein Never Used Flash Cards (Rodale; 2003). You can actually train your child to play on his own — and it's a wonderful gift, Hirsh-Pasek says.
1) Show Him How It's Done
Begin by showing your child how fun solo playtime it can be. Being alone is a learned behavior to some extent, so you have to get it started. When your child is 6 months old, you can place him in a playpen with a few toys when he's up and wakeful and fed and leave the door open so he can see you. Rattles, stacking rings and other easy-to-hold items can entertain a baby this age for up to 20 minutes, says Hirsh-Pasek. Keep building on this. Then, cognitively, when your child is a toddler, talk it up about how much you enjoy doing things on your own and send him the message that doing things on your own is a wonderful thing. Build on it.
2) Create Secure, Baby-Proofed Play Areas in Your Home and Yard
The best way to encourage your child's solo endeavors is to make spaces where you can encourage your child's experimentation. It doesn't have to be a whole room — even a drawer filled with tupperware can be a treasured play spot. Kid-space essentials include building blocks and other building toys, costumes, crayons, paper plates and other crafty supplies, puppets, dolls and more.
3) Keep Them Occupied
When you see that your child has a particular affinity for an activity, encourage it. If your child loves playing with toy dinosaurs, supplement that with dinosaur stories. The key to keeping your child occupied on his own is to provide him items that encourage it.
4) Allow Messy
You have to give in to the fact that children left alone to play will sometimes make a mess. You know that moment in your home when the house gets too silent and you just know your child must be getting into something? It's THIS sort of thing that you're after, only, find other ways besides letting a child scribble on your walls. Perhaps cover them with draw-on wall paper?