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Playing Around: Are We Recognizing the Critical Role of Play in Our Developing Children?


In the year 2019, the demands on our children’s developing minds and bodies looks vastly different than they did previously. From academic requirements to basic skill-building, the focus on structured routines and curricula throughout a child’s daily routine can leave little room for free time. As we consider what our communities’ youngest members need to learn and grow, the question arises: are our children getting enough time to play?

Harvard Medical School (2019) released its ‘Commentaries on Health’ this year on the importance of play, stating, “We can’t let play be lost. It’s too important for our children’s health, happiness and future.” The article cited these top reasons for children to not receive adequate time to play: increased academic demands, misconceptions in media that emphasize enrolling children in as many activities as possible to build aptitudes, increased screen time, pressure for children to perform more rigorous tasks at a young age, and that many communities have very few (if any) places for children to play safely outside. With all of the pressures for families to meet the growing expectations for their children, the idea of play time seems to be becoming more and more arbitrary. However, play can and should be considered the key to opening the intellectual, physical, mental and emotional flood gates of health, development, and relationship building for ALL children and families.

But could this truly be? Could play really act as a means of supporting the development of children in a connected, organic way? Research says yes! For a child, ‘play’ acts as a gateway for children to learn and explore their environments. From practicing problem-solving skills to learning how to negotiate/share to discovering new interests through unstructured time, children are able to decompress, express themselves and develop vital emotional, social and intellectual skills. The American Association of Pediatrics not only highlights the strengths of play for the developing child, but names some significant results when play is absent from a child’s life. “When play and safe, stable, nurturing relationships are missing in a child’s life, toxic stress can disrupt the development of executive function and the learning of prosocial behavior” (Yogman et. al, 2018).  The article continues to identify play as a tool to not only build attachments and create healthy relationships, but also shared communication and attunement that helps to regulate the body’s stress response.

This year, Vermont’s state-wide Children’s Integrated Services (CIS) Institute, entitled ‘Play: Engaging Children and Families How They Learn Best’, brought Naomi Shapiro, LICSW BCD to discuss and explore the important impact play has had for the children and families she has continued to support over the last few decades. Through play, Naomi has been able to build trusting relationships with whole families, offer therapeutic insights, and create a safe, trusted environment for children, empowering them to explore who they are and want to be. Naomi noted, “I’ve never learned more from the children I support than I have through my efforts to play alongside and with them”. As the CIS conference progressed, early care providers and stakeholders learned how to use play to build attachment in foster care and kin settings, trauma-informed play with families and young children, and more about inclusive play in childcare settings. With several perspectives of integrated play and developing professional skillsets across early childhood programming, the notion of play becomes dynamic as it takes a prominent seat at the table of professionalism.

As Franklin/Grand Isle joins regions across the state to identify it’s regional action plan to incorporate play-based goals for integrated services, Franklin/Grand Isle identified a goal of meeting parents/caregivers where they’re at, noting that play does not always come easily or naturally to adults learning how to play with their children. The region’s early childhood stakeholders have convened a monthly meeting at the Parent Child Center in St. Albans to discuss how play can be integrated across settings for parents and caregivers to develop their play skills. With the support of Strong Families VT, Early Childhood Family Mental Health, Early Intervention, Vermont Department of Health, and the Child Care Resource Team from the Parent Child Center, a growing play curriculum is in development now. The team is using their experience in multiple settings and keeping in mind specific strategies to support development, possible medical needs of children, and behavioral challenges families may experience.

Through the Action Plan process, the Franklin/Grand Isle ‘Play Planning Team’ has noted themes to some barriers that prevent children and families from accessing regular resources to support play. For example, society places such a high-focus on achievement rather than free-play and the heightened use of media/technology has shifted what play looks like for kids across their environments. Additionally, providers shared their experiences talking with parents who feel like they have to buy expensive and complex toys for their kids rather than getting down on the floor with them to stack blocks. While families combat these barriers and misconceptions, the Play Planning Team will be working hard throughout the next year to explore trainings, continue to practice from evidence-based home-visiting models, and actively engage families in the community to explore play as a part of children’s healthy start, with the focus on parents and caregivers as children’s leading play partners.

While the Franklin/Grand Isle Play Planning Team explores avenues to promote play for the children growing and learning, there are several resources that families can access throughout the region. There are local playgroups, library circles, activities in every community, and early care providers that utilize play as means of discovering the world alongside children. If you’re looking to find out what local resources are available to you and your family, The Family Center at the Parent Child Center Facebook page posts regular local events available. Other great resources include calling your local librarian, checking out your local school district’s event calendar and checking in with local early care providers for opportunities to explore and learn through play right alongside your kids!

 

References:

McCarthy, C. (2019). The importance of play. Harvard Medical School Commentaries on Health. Boston, MA: Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved from: https://une.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/hhphoh/the_importance_of_play/0

Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., et al; AAP COMMITTEE ON PSYCHOSOCIAL ASPECTS OF CHILD AND FAMILY HEALTH, AAP COUNCIL ON COMMUNICATIONS AND MEDIA, (2018). The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics, 142(3). E20182058.

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