All Work and No Play?

As summer winds down and the school year approaches, families are gearing up, once again, for the rat-race.

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The end of summer is ironically marked by a century-old holiday celebrating the power of work in this country. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Labor Day “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” We all feel the urge to get back to work and “be productive” once again. Yet I think we have lost touch with the value of free time and play, especially for our children.

I touched on the importance of play in a previous post about the effects of stress on our children. I wrote about overscheduled children frantically trying to keep up with their overscheduled parents in our 21st century world where relaxation time must be planned as well. Play-dates have replaced free play, often booked weeks in advance as parents link up their PDA’s to ensure kids can hang out together. More and more research, though, is pointing out the costs of hectic childhoods and the benefits of free play.

This week’s Detroit Free Press quotes Texas A&M psychologist Rob Heffer regarding developmental concerns related to all work and no play: “While exposing a child to a wide variety of experiences is important, this needs to be balanced with a realization of the importance of free, unstructured time for the child. A child who is constantly involved in all types of structured activities may not have the time to engage in important developmental activities such as self-reflection and self-evaluation.”

A study published this year in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (Burdette HL, Whitaker RC: Resurrecting free play in young children: looking beyond fitness and fatness to attention, affiliation, and affect. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 159: 46-50) highlights the physical toll on our children: “We propose that efforts to increase physical activity in young children might be more successful if physical activity is promoted using different language-encouraging play-and if a different set of outcomes are emphasized-aspects of child well-being other than physical health.”

Another study, published in the American Journal of Public Health (Kuo FE, Taylor AF: A potential natural treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: evidence from a national study. Am J Public Health 94:1580-6), demonstrates the positive effects of outdoor play on children with ADHD.

Not that we necessarily have to develop an evidence-base to feel good about recommending free, unstructured play for our children, but in this crazy world where towns schedule one night a year for families to be together and relax, we need all the help we can get.

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