A Prescription To Play

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Studies consistently show that play is critical to healthy physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. Play helps children learn how to interact with others appropriately and builds relationships. Play is so important, in fact, that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now encourages all pediatricians to write prescriptions for play to children and parents.

Yet today’s children spend more time in front of screens than they do on the jungle gym. Why the disconnect?

Parents are overscheduled. They’re trying to stay on top of work demands and managing a household. And when you’re trying to get dinner on the table, it’s much easier to hand your child a device to keep them occupied than sit down and play with them.

The Power of Play

Play is a key way to build a relationship with your child. The AAP defines play as “an activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, and results in joyful discovery.” And research suggests that play may be as important as medicine in supporting a child’s well-being. Types of play include:

  • Object play: Investigating an object and learning how it works flexes kids’ sensory and motor skills and helps them make sense of their world.
  • Outdoor play: Playing outdoors — and getting some physical exercise — is essential to kids’ health and well-being.
  • Physical play: From pat-a-cake to rough and tumble activities, physical play helps kids develop motor skills and encourages an active lifestyle.
  • Pretend play: With pretend play, children not only have an opportunity to use their imaginations, but they’re also able to work through problems and emotions in a safe space.

How to Make Play a Priority

Making a commitment to helping your child play can be difficult when you’re already overwhelmed. These four strategies can help you pull it off:

  • Keep it simple: Play doesn’t have to be expensive. Simple toys with fewer bells and whistles encourage more creative thinking. According to the AAP, toys that act as a framework for imagination and invention, as well as ones that bring together parents and children, have significant cognitive and developmental advantages.
  • Set a timer: Be clear with children about how much time you have to play. Then set a timer. If you have 20 minutes for playtime, set the timer for 15 minutes so you can give your child a 5-minute warning that playtime is ending.
  • Pay attention: Put everything down — including your phone — and focus exclusively on your child. You and your child will get much more out of the interaction when you’re fully present.
  • Think outside the box: Some of the best toys are things you already have on hand — pots and pans, a large cardboard box, even spatulas and rubber tongs. As kids get older, you can use household items as a form of entertainment and training (by teaching them to cook with measuring cups and spoons, vacuum and wash dishes!) The idea, of course, is to create a space for kids to take risks, experiment and test boundaries.

Get Busy

Even just 10 minutes of one-on-one play can make a huge difference in your child’s development and well-being. It’s also an opportunity for you to spot problems: Imaginative play creates space for kids to act out the things that are bothering them and it gives parents a platform to help children work through difficult emotions. If your child is afraid of shots, for example, you can play doctor and work through what will happen and how it might feel. Dealing with the loss of a loved one? Play can help a child process their grief.

No matter which issue your child is facing, playing together can help. Spending quality time with your child builds a strong relationship, and that’s what matters most to their physical and emotional health in the long run.


To find a doctor or therapist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

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