Less work, more play for kids, doctors advise
Indian children play with coloured powder during Holi celebrations in New Delhi. Play does great things for childhood development. Source: AFP/Sajjad Hussain

It’s time to reset how we think about play.

American pediatricians are being recommended to prescribe more play time for kids, to counter the ‘toxic’ effects of children’s over-scheduled lives, according to a new policy report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Play is not frivolous,” the report says.

“…it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (ie, the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.”

The report suggests that preschools should incorporate more playful learning, while doctors call for unstructured playtime and for parents to let their children take the lead – even if they fail.

Pakistani children play on crossbar swings at sunset in Lahore. Source: AFP/Arif Ali

Playtime has never been more scarce, or important, in today’s frantic scramble to academically prepare our children.

With academic results prioritised as early as preschool, playful learning has decreased. Early childhood programmes have been pressured to add more didactic components, the opposite of what play is supposed to be: active, aimless, spontaneous, involving makebelieve, resulting in joyful discovery, etc.

This sounds a lot like what goes on at Fuji Kindergarten, dubbed the “the world’s best kindergarten”.

According to Ted-Ed, here, children are left to be children in the “endless playground” outside Tokyo.

“We designed the school as a circle, with a kind of endless circulation. When we started, I had no preconceived notions. Studying other kindergartens was like looking in the rearview mirror of a car: Even if you look very closely, you can’t see anything in front,” said Takaharu Tezuka

Kids slide or climb into classes, trees are made into toys, skylights let kids peek into their friends’ classrooms and even earthquake safety drills are made into a fun activity.

They exemplify the four types of play the AAP’s report identified: object play (using objects as toys), physical (or rough-and-tumble play like pillow fights), outdoor (eg. playing tag) and social or pretend (like role-playing).

The report cited a list of researches that showed the benefits of such acts, such as enhanced cognitive flexibility, reducing both parent-child stress, build self-regulation, etc.

These are benefits that sound primed for success in the 21st century. At the recent gathering of global power brokers at Davos, free play was offered as a solution to the onslaught of automation that will displace many workers worldwide.

In addition to upskilling employees and offering versions of a universal basic income, one group of CEOs suggested this scientifically-grounded but under-appreciated solution to the problem.

John Goodwin, CEO of the Lego Foundation and former Chief Financial Officer for The Lego Group said helping kids play more “will equip them to be relevant to the workplace and to society.”

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