While it's no secret that playtime encourages children's development, new research released this week has shed more light on the positive impacts of fun and games. In fact, various types of play can help your kids thrive in school and in many developmental ways later in life as well.
To get to their findings, researchers behind the new study — conducted by Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) and sponsored by Hasbro — followed 327 children between the ages of 2 ½ and 8 years old in the United States and Mexico for two years.
Researchers discovered that active play is absolutely critical to child development. "Active play was associated with less sadness, anxiety and fearfulness," according to the study, which noted that this type of play was linked to less aggression and fewer attention problems for children in the United States, while children in Mexico exhibited more school readiness.
Michael Rich, MD, MPH, Founder and Director of CMCH tells Romper that active play is defined as "any play involving physical activity," such as a game of tag with friends, imaginary play that "involves movement," or simply throwing a ball back and forth with a buddy. Rich also tells Romper "active video games" that require kids to get up and move also counts as active play.
The new study, which is part of CMCH's #MorePlayToday research initiative, also found that letter and number play, as well as card games and board games, were also associated with positive development, such as school readiness, improved vocabulary, and even increased social competence. Letter and number play, for example, was linked to less sadness for children in the United States and behaviors exhibiting respect and empathy for kids in Mexico.
Perhaps most surprisingly, child-directed play with adults was associated with improved memory. "Getting the whole family involved in play is also important, as we found that the more frequently children played with adults in the household, the better their memory became," Rich tells Romper, adding that he found the research's initial findings "surprising and encouraging."
Rich, who's also an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, explained in a press release for the study that "the CMCH prescription for happy, school-ready kids" includes a mix of all areas of play: active play, number and letter play, board games, and play with parents. "It’s important for parents, caregivers, physicians, and educators to understand that play is more than just fun," Rich said.
Having this knowledge is more vital now than ever before as children are spending more time alone with screens and less with skill-building types of play, according to Diane Levin, a professor of early childhood education. In 2016, Levin spoke at the Yale School of Management and said adults are an important element of a child’s play, but they often underestimate all that a youngster is learning when they participate in active kinds of play.
For example, math and problem solving skills can be learned in a pretend grocery store setting, physical skills can be picked up when playing with blocks or running around, and new vocabulary can be gleaned from things like toy dinosaurs, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
CMCH and the #MorePlayToday initiative have some suggestions for parents looking for ideas for active play times. For toddlers, researchers recommend simple things like wooden blocks, which help develop language skills. Preschoolers can handle board games that require numbers and counting and video games that require whole-body movement. By the time kids are school age, CMCH recommends encouraging imagination and pretend play.
Rich recommends his patients "make time for play every day" and to mix up the games and activities. "This includes having a board game night or a video game tournament, time for unstructured imaginary play and that parents make time to play with their kids and let them choose the play," Rich tells Romper. "It’s important for parents to understand that play is more than just fun, it’s an essential part of children’s healthy development!"