Missing: Childhood’s Playtime

By Bryana Hinck, DNP, FNP-C

“Compared to the 1970s, children now spend 50% less time in unstructured outdoor activities.  Children ages 10 to 16 now spend, on average only 12.6 minutes a day in vigorous physical activity.  Yet they spend an average of 10.4 waking hours a day relatively motionless,” according to a study published by MIT and the Alliance for Childhood.

 There are many contributing factors to the alarming trend of a “playless” childhood like more structured time responsibilities and safety concerns.  But the biggest impact on today’s Alpha Generation: children between the ages of 8 to 18 spend an average of 6 hours on screens.  The impacts of less playtime or lower physical activity rates can be seen in the rise in childhood obesity, depressions and anxiety rates among children and teens and lower overall socialization.

 Research clearly shows that playtime has a profoundly positive impact on children’s cognitive development.  According to the AAP, play is essential to health brain development as it provides opportunities for children to explore, experiment and problem solve in a safe and encouraging environment.  Through play children develop critical thinking skills, creativity and the ability to adapt to new situations. Moreover, studies conducted by the National association for the Education of Young Children, emphasize the role of play-based learning in enhancing language development and literacy skills.

The significance of play extends beyond just cognitive devolvement, encompassing emotional well-being and mental health. In his book, The Anxious Generation, psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes a convincing case that the introduction of wide-spread cell phone use correlates directly to the mental health crisis in today’s teens.  According to the CDC, play serves as a natural outlet for expressing emotions, regulating behavior and improving school performance.

 The founder of the National Institute for Play, Dr. Stuart Brown, spent his life researching and documenting the importance of play.  He says that all human beings have an innate need to engage in playful activities as a part of healthy development.  Brown said, “The presence or absence of play, particularly in child development, has a great deal to do with competency, resiliency, emotional health and brain size.  Play is not frivolous and just for kids, but something that is an inherent part of human nature.”