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Play is critical for children’s development because it provides time and space for children to explore and gain skills needed for adult life. Children’s playtime has steadily decreased due to limited access to play spaces, changes in the way children are expected to spend their time, parent concerns for safety, and digital media use. Between 1981 and 1997, the amount of time children spent playing dropped by 25 percent. During this same time period, children ages 3-11 lost 12 hours a week of free time and spent more time at school, completing homework, and shopping with parents.
Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children. Despite the benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children. This report addresses a variety of factors that have reduced play, including a hurried lifestyle, changes in family structure, and increased attention to academics and enrichment activities at the expense of recess or free child-centered play. This report offers guidelines on how pediatricians can advocate for children by helping families, school systems, and communities consider how best to ensure that play is protected as they seek the balance in children’s lives to create the optimal developmental milieu.
Many people often think of play in the form of images of young children at recess engaging in games of tag, ball, using slides, swings, and physically exploring their environments. But physical play is not the only kind of play. We often use the terms pretend play or make-believe play (the acting out of stories which involve multiple perspectives and the playful manipulation of ideas and emotions), that reflect a critical feature of the child’s cognitive and social development. Over the last seventy-five years a number of theorists and researchers have identified the values of such imaginative play as a vital component to the normal development of a child.