By Melissa Bernstein
In today’s fast-paced world, giving our children the gift of open-ended play has become much more challenging. As a mother of six and the co-founder of the toy company Melissa & Doug, I’ve had a front-row seat to the societal changes impacting childhood. The pervasiveness of excessive screen time, overscheduling, a test-and-stress-based educational system, and hyper-vigilant parents fearful of letting kids roam freely have crowded out the kind of exploratory, skill-building play essential to discovering one’s passions and purpose.
But there’s good news.
In the last few years, The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken dramatic steps to address the play deficit crisis. In 2016, it released a report significantly strengthening its screen time guidelines, limiting total screen time for ages 2 to 5 to just one hour a day and none for children ages 18 to 24 months. And more recently, the AAP published reports detailing the most beneficial types of play and the best toys for encouraging that kind of play. Furthermore, simultaneous with these reports, came groundbreaking research on the damaging effects of excessive screen time for young children.
Here’s a look at why hands-on play is more important than ever to your child’s health and well-being:
1) PEDIATRICIANS ENCOURAGED TO WRITE PRESCRIPTIONS FOR PLAY
In September 2018, the AAP delivered a groundbreaking clinical report: “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children.” This report highlighted the benefits of play and encouraged pediatricians to give a “Prescription for Play” to caregivers during well-child visits before age 2, advising them to engage in open-ended play daily with their children. It was an uncharacteristically bold stance and important recognition that, as the report says, “Play is not frivolous: It enhances brain structure and function.”
2) DOCTORS SAY THE BEST EDUCATION TOYS FOR KIDS ARE THE CLASSICS
The AAP followed their “prescription for play” recommendation with practical advice in a report called “Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era.” The report offers evidence-based support for choosing traditional toys over digital media-based virtual “toys.” It notes that high-quality toys in categories such as pretend play (dolls, cars, housekeeping), hands-on/manipulative play (blocks, puzzles), arts and crafts, language and letters, and physical play can facilitate caregiver-child interactions, peer play, and the growth of imagination.
The report also establishes the role of pediatricians to advise caregivers on toys that are appropriate for young children based on developmental stage, opportunities for learning, and safety. And most importantly, it encourages caregivers to choose toys that are open-ended and allow the child to play with them in different ways as they grow.
3) STUDIES SHOW SIGNIFICANT BRAIN DIFFERENCES IN KIDS WHO SPEND HOURS ON SCREENS
Last fall, Anderson Cooper and 60 Minutes ran a segment with the headline, “Groundbreaking Study Examines Effects of Screen Time on Kids,” further strengthening the case against technology usage in young children. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, one of the lead authors of the AAP’s most recent screen time guidelines, was featured in the piece. “What we do know about babies playing with iPads,” Christakis said, “is that they don’t transfer what they learn from the iPad to the real world. Which is to say that if you give a child an app where they play with virtual Legos, virtual blocks, and stack them, and then put real blocks in front of them, they start all over… They don’t transfer the knowledge from two dimensions to three.”
Another recent study revealed that toddlers ages 2 and 3 who spent a lot of time looking at screens (averaging two to three hours a day) showed poorer performance on developmental screening tests at ages 3 and 5. The study is reportedly the first to show a direct association between screen time and poor performance.
The data is compelling: Play is good, excessive screen time is not. Is it possible hands-on play is just the thing we need to counter the overstimulation rampant in this digital age?
How to Maximize Your Child’s Learning Through Hands-On Play
In its reports on play, the AAP features a recurring theme: the importance of caregiver-child interactions. Every child deserves an imagination coach, a grown-up who can facilitate learning by asking thought-provoking questions, providing time and space for discovery, and making unstructured, screen-free playtime a priority. Here are some ideas for enriching play:
Encourage Critical Thinking
Get kids to think critically by asking them to imagine scenarios as they play and create. Ask:
- What are all the possible outcomes?
- What do you predict will happen?
- Why were you correct or incorrect?
Stimulate Their Senses
As kids play, draw attention to their senses.
- What colors do you see? Where else can you find those colors?
- Have you ever heard a sound like that?
- Which looks/feels/sounds better, this or that?
Challenge Their Creativity
Challenge kids to come up with new ways to play with their old toys. Here are some scripts you can use to kick-start your kids’ thinking:
- What’s a game you could make up to play with a particular toy? Does it have a name and what are its rules?
- Come up with a new “use” for the toy. For example: “It’s not just a toy broom, it’s a rock star’s guitar!”
- Make up a story starring the toy: “What happened? Then what? What’s the dramatic conclusion?”
For my husband Doug and I, these recent reports have been validation for three decades of championing open-ended, hands-on play as essential to a lifetime of fulfillment. We believe it’s our duty to give caregivers the confidence to choose free play and the tools to spark enriching play experiences. Whether kids are playing with Melissa & Doug toys, or others, we want to make those interactions as wonder-filled as possible! Because the joy of open-ended play may be one of the most important gifts we can give our children.
Melissa Bernstein is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Melissa & Doug, the toy company committed to igniting imagination and a sense of wonder in all children so they can discover themselves, their passions and their purpose.