The importance of play – for kids and adults

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By Jeri Kayser

When people try and remember the name of my profession, child life specialist, they often shorten it to “play lady.” That used to bug me when I was a young professional and ready to solve all of the world’s problems, but now I recognize the compliment. We breathe, drink and eat to stay alive – we play to bring forth a reason for all of that effort. Play is how we learn about our world, practice that knowledge and foster our sense of well-being and personal joy; it’s an honor to promote play in the world of health care, but it’s not without its challenges.

One current challenge is tied to the hot topic in popular culture about the value of gaming devices. Is playing a game on a smartphone when you’re 2 years old considered quality play? Short answer: No. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for kids 2 and younger and only one to two hours a day for older children. The core aspect of the definition of “play” is that it’s self-directive. You’re deciding what you’re going to do with whatever you’re interacting with. One of the problems with electronic games is that game designers have done most of that for you.

Your toddler recognizes the status that phone holds, and it works for a bit to keep a child distracted from the fact that he or she is in the hospital or in a long checkout line at the grocery store.

So what can we use to help guide our decisions to promote healthy play? A great way to look at this is similar to how we all work to promote healthy choices for our diet. Potato chips are fine for an occasional treat, but we wouldn’t want to eat them all the time. If we did, we’d feel awful. Video games kind of are the junk food of play. The more the play requires from the child, the better the value and healthier the choice.

I notice this in the hospital when I come into a room to meet with a family about what to expect with surgery. People often are busy with an electronic device, but as soon as we start to talk, the interest is there to engage and the devices get turned off. When I bring a toy or some arts and crafts activities, kids always gravitate towards that; they want what they need.

I used to work in a summer daycare program for school-aged kids. We would spend the morning on a field trip and the afternoon at a beach. The director wanted us to provide structured activities for the kids in the afternoon, but we quickly learned that the combination of water, sand and friends led to a more-creative, imaginative and enriched play than anything with which we could have come up. Hands-on play, where a child uses his or her imagination and ideas to self-discover, creates the best learning environment.

I heard an interesting story on public radio on my long commute home. At the electronic show in Austin, Texas, at the South by Southwest conference, the big news at the conference was the “Maker Movement,” stressing the importance of hands-on play to promote understanding of how our world works. They interviewed an inventor, Ayah Bdeir, who created a toy of electronic bits that fit together with magnets, creating circuits. With this process, you can make all kinds of fun things. He explained the value of this explorative play by stating, “We need to remember that we are all makers and touching things with our hands is powerful and inspiring.”

In another century, another scientist noted the same thing. Albert Einstein declared, “Play is the highest form of research.”

Self-directed play offers the healthiest value for our play “diet,” and this extends throughout our lives. We all need to play. As I wrote this, I overheard a conversation between two anesthesiologists talking about how they used play to help them cope with life stressors. One likes his guitar, while the other enjoys making remote-control helicopters.

This important fact, one of the highest forms of self-care, needs to be part of the planning of how we provide health care. Play is important for all age groups, not just those adorable preschoolers. We need to incorporate this in everything we do, for teens, parents and staff.

Late Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said it best: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Jeri Kayser is a child life specialist at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.