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Healthy development is child's play

Believe it or not, children are not spending enough time playing.

In a detailed report published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers conclude that free play has been "markedly reduced" for some children because of "hurried lifestyles, changes in family structure, and increased attention to academics and enrichment activities at the expense of recess or child-centered play."

The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has weighed in on the issue, reminding parents and paediatricians alike that play is both a "right of every child" and "important to optimal child development."

Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg, lead author of the report, supports the UN’s perspective by relaying the obvious, but often overlooked, advantages associated with play.

"Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers," he writes. "As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges."

The paediatrician’s role

According to Dr. Ginsburg, paediatricians play a vital role in promoting the physical, emotional, and social well-being of children and adolescents. It’s imperative, he adds, that paediatricians advocate on behalf of children and equip parents with the necessary strategies to nurture resiliency and reduce any added stressors in their child’s life.

For example:

  • Paediatricians ought to recommend that all children "be afforded ample, unscheduled, independent, non-screen time to be creative, to reflect, and to decompress." Similarly, even though parents are often required to supervise play for safety, play time should be predominantly child driven rather than adult directed.

  • ​Paediatricians ought to reinforce that "parents who share unscheduled spontaneous time with their children and who play with their children are being wonderfully supportive, nurturing, and productive."

Whether it’s at school, on the playground, or in the home, free play remains a cornerstone of healthy child development. And it’s about time all children begin to reap the benefits, writes Dr. Ginsburg.

"Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue."

Fun activities for your child

Undirected play is also a proven means to building up physical activity levels in children, notes Dr. Ginsburg. With this in mind, here are a few playtime suggestions to consider the next time your child says, "I’m bored":

  • ​Take a hike while exploring new or unfamiliar trails in and around your neighbourhood. Be sure to dress appropriately, particularly when it comes to footwear. Comfortable and supportive shoes or boots are keys to a pleasurable hiking experience.

  • Nature scavenger hunts are a great way to spend time outdoors and on the move. Encourage your child to create a short list of things to discover while they explore a local green space.

  • Does your child have a green thumb? It’s never too early to introduce them to the joy of gardening​. Section off a small area of your garden and dedicate it to growing fruits, vegetables, or herbs. By giving your child the responsibility of maintaining this plot, you are providing them with a hands-on approach to understanding what an ecosystem is and how things grow.

Joel Tiller