Chicago Here's some soothing medicine for stressed-out parents and overscheduled kids: The American Academy of Pediatrics says what children really need for healthy development is more good, old-fashioned playtime.
Many parents load their children's schedules with get-smart videos, enrichment activities and lots of classes in a drive to help them excel. The efforts often begin as early as infancy.
Spontaneous free play - whether it's chasing butterflies, playing with "true toys" like blocks and dolls, or just romping on the floor with mom and dad - often is sacrificed in the shuffle, a new academy report says.
Jennifer Gervasio has a 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter involved in preschool three mornings weekly, plus T-ball and ballet for each one day a week. That's a light schedule compared with her kids' friends, and Gervasio said her son in particular has trouble finding buddies who are free to come over and just play.
"There's just such a huge variety of things you can do for your kids if you have the resources, you almost feel why not," said Gervasio, of Wilmette, Ill. "There is a part of me that would worry if I don't sign my son up for some of these things, will he not be on par with the other kids?"
For now, she says, she resists the pressure, instead allowing her kids plenty of time for looking for bugs, romping at the beach and enjoying other play activities.
"I truly believe that they're better off when they can just do their own thing," Gervasio said.
Numerous studies have shown that unstructured play has many benefits. It can help children become creative, discover their own passions, develop problem-solving skills, relate to others and adjust to school settings, the academy report says.
"Perhaps above all, play is a simple joy that is a cherished part of childhood," says the report, prepared by two academy committees for release today at the group's annual meeting in Atlanta.
A lack of spontaneous playtime can create stress for children and parents alike. If it occurs because young children are plopped in front of get-smart videos or older children lose school recess time, it can increase risks for obesity. It even may contribute to depression for many children, the report says.
Make playtime an everyday thing
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers parents these suggestions to encourage more free playtime for their children:
- Emphasize "true toys," including dolls and blocks, to allow children to use their imaginations fully.
- Spend time together talking and listening rather than loading kids' schedules with extracurricular activities. This helps parents serve as role models and prepares children for success.
- Avoid conveying an unrealistic expectation that every child needs to excel in many areas to be a success.
Social pressures and marketing pitches about creating "superchildren" contribute to a lack of playtime for many families. But so does living in low-income, violence-prone neighborhoods where safe places to play are scarce, the report says.
It says enrichment tools and organized activities can be beneficial but should not be viewed as a requirement for creating successful children. Above all, they must be balanced with plenty of free play time, the report says.
"In the current environment where so many parents feel pressure to be superparents, I believe this message is an important one," said Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, the report's lead author and a pediatrician at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Noted pediatrician and author Dr. T. Berry Brazelton praised the academy's report.
"I hope it will have some effect," Brazelton said.
Children overscheduled with structured activities "are missing the chance they have to dream, to fantasize, to make their own world work the way they want it. That to me is a very important part of childhood," Brazelton said.