“Free Play” revisited

Since my post on the AAP’s “Free Play” statement, I’ve been contacted by other groups and individuals supporting the same concept. It’s a crucial issue, and I thought it would be worthwhile discussing these resources in more detail.

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“A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says free and unstructured play is healthy and – in fact – essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.”

This is the introduction to the AAP’s press release. What a key concept, and one which touches on so many of our cultural ills. Obesity? Mental health issues? There are few childhood issues which are not related in some way to the pressures afflicting today’s kids. Integrative medicine places a strong emphasis on mind-body-spirit health, and mind-body therapies have been utilized for a very long time (and well-studied) for helping with stress-related conditions.

One group, The Alliance for Childhood, has been promoting the idea for some time that we need to bring back more unstructured, free play. According to their web site, The Alliance “promotes policies and practices that support children’s healthy development, love of learning, and joy in living.” They support the following beliefs:

– Childhood is a critical phase of life and must be protected to be fully experienced. It should not be hurried.

– Each child deserves respect as an individual. Each needs help in developing his or her own unique capacities and in finding ways to weave them into a healthy social fabric.

– Children today are under tremendous stress and suffer increasingly from illnesses such as allergies, asthma, hyperactive disorders, obesity and depression. This stress must be alleviated.

I was asked to sign their “Call to Action on the Education of Young Children” (posted on their web site), joining a long list of distinguished educators and medical professionals calling for immediate and long-lasting solutions to the problem of educational ills related to stress in today’s society. I am proud to support this initiative and agree it is one of the key struggles of our times. And, as I mentioned previously, my alma mater’s Dean of Admissions, Marilee Jones, is helping to lead the fight and joining with the AAP to promote resilience and decrease stress in our children. Kudos to her as well.

Finally, Dr. Susan Solomon’s fine book, “American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space,” is a potent reminder of how the architectural fabric of our society may help or hinder childhood development. Dr. Solomon, an architectural historian, notes on her web site, “My book is a history, a manifesto and a manual. I offer remedies that unite excellent design with innovative planning and affordable cost. My intention is to energize consumers to think broadly about what constitutes a good play environment. I encourage them to take action. It is time for the playground to become a critical element in public space.”

Our environment can be an active contributor to illness and disorder, or a wonderful partner to support health and wellness. We must play an active role to insure the latter.

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