Rick Bowmer / AP
Friday, Nov. 9, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Play is an inherent part of life. Puppies play. Cats play. Polar bears play. Lions, monkeys, birds, elephants, otters and people play. From the time a child is born and throughout adulthood, the power of play is crucial for healthy development. It’s so important that it’s protected by the Convention on the Rights of the Child established by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“Play for children is very essential, because it contributes to optimal child development, and when we’re talking about child development, we’re talking about all aspects of development—physical development, social development, emotional well-being, as well as cognitive intellectual skills,” said Anita Henderson, associate medical director for the Department of Pediatrics at Southwestern Medical associates.
The importance of free play
Children need different guidance during free play, depending on their age. But Henderson suggests letting children choose their activity and intervene very little unless there’s a safety concern.
Play can loosely be categorized into two groups—restrictive play and free play.
• Restrictive play: A form of play that has a set of guidelines or rules to follow, such as organized sports.
• Free play: Henderson defines free play as child-directed play. “It’s when you allow the child to decide what it is they want to do,” she said. “The parent is there to help guide them, but in the end, it’s the child who’s making the majority of the decisions in this play.”
The benefits of free play
Free play not only helps children develop fine motor skills, it also teaches them cognitive skills—such as problem solving—and interpersonal skills, such as compromising and negotiating.
The effect of play across the ages
Play is important for adults, too. Research shows play helps them build a sense of community, decreases risks of degenerative brain diseases and maintains strong interpersonal relationships.
“In infancy and as a toddler, that’s really the child’s job—to play and explore, because they’re actually learning and developing skills that way,” Henderson said. “That’s the majority of their time. When you get into school age, it is important to have that little break where kids can unwind, release that energy and be able to interact with other kids.”
Infants up to about 12 months old learn cause and effect, hand-eye coordination, basic language skills and the five senses during free play. For example, when a baby plays with its rattle, the child learns that effect will be a noise.
Toddlers learn problem-solving skills, resilience and new words through free play.
As children enter elementary school, free play teaches them interpersonal skills such as communication, compromise and empathy.
A shift away from free play
Henderson said there’s concern about the reduction of free play for children, pointing to the phasing out of recess and an increase in regulated after-school activities.
“They have found that when kids are not given adequate time for recess, they may not perform as well in school academically,” Henderson said. “All these skills, not just their fine motor skills and physical skills, but their ability to interact with other children, might be compromised. Learning how to share, learning how to deal with adversity—all these concepts may not become clear when they don’t have a chance to try it out on the playground.”
A 2017 Gallup Children’s study also notes a shift to screen-based play. According to the study, children spend the majority of their free time for the week, more than 18 hours, engaged in screen-based play, versus 10.6 hours spent on outdoor play.
“There are concerns now about an increased level of stress and anxiety, and children who really haven’t learned to develop the skills of resiliency,” Henderson said.
The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District has launched a new free toy lending program to help encourage children to play.
“One of the important things with this program is really the power of play,” said Kristy Gibson, Youth Services Librarian. “You hear a lot now that kids are more apt to play with technology or be in front of the screen, and it’s really to bring back that imaginative play.”
The new toy lending program features 200 American Girl dolls, which span a diverse collection of personality profiles, ethnicities and historical backstories. Each of the dolls will be loaned out with a book detailing its life story, plus a backpack to transport the doll.
“We decided to focus on the American Girl doll. Not only is it a very popular doll—it has brand recognition—but it also has the stories that go along with the dolls,” Gibson said. “It’s allowing for play, but there is an educational and reading component that comes along with it.”
The library district collection ranges from dolls from the American Revolution to 1970s San Francisco and more. The dolls can be checked out for three weeks at a time by a library cardholder.
“If you’re spending $115 on a doll, you might want to buy one that’s more similar to what your child looks like, or has a storyline that you like. But this provides the opportunity for girls to learn about the Great Depression, civil rights movements and Native Americans,” Gibson said. “There’s so many dolls that come along with this, it gives you exposure to that, and I think that’s extremely important. That’s one of the things a library does—introduce you to things you might not have known you’ve been missing.”
Visit lvccld.org to find the nearest branch with this program.