Where Has All the Playing Gone?

Deanna Macioce, MS, OTR/L

More and more, we are finding that children are struggling to achieve many of the common development skills, and this is playing a role in their performance in school tasks, play, and overall movement and coordination. Having children move through the appropriate motor skills development progression is vitally important.

How are motor skills developed? When we think of child development, we are drawn to the art of play. Play is intrinsically motivated and is characterized by self-imposed goals, yet still can be spontaneous. As children move and explore while playing within their environment, manipulating toys, and interacting with people, they work on developing the skills that are needed for so many other skills and activities they’ll encounter further along the way.

Play helps build success, self-confidence and independence. As skills are developed, children being to improve attention, motor and functional skills, and sensory processing. They are also developing perceptual, cognitive and social/emotional abilities. Children will learn through play. So why does it seem as if the art of playing is changing and lessening the development of these skills?

There seems to be a decrease in the focus on play and an increase on “development.” We are seeing this in our homes, schools and daycare centers. Infants are being placed in swings, bouncy seats and activity tables for prolonged amounts of time. In addition, parents are becoming too cautious and fearful about giving children the ability to explore and play on their own.

The focus on academic development overlooks that true success in school comes from good motor development and coordination—from the hand-eye coordination needed for writing and reading to a strong core and good hand development. In addition, a well-organized sensory system helps children sit, attend, focus and participate with great ease. Taking away or decreasing recess time, as well as providing fewer opportunities for kids to move and play throughout the school environment, is impacting these essential skills.

Of course, we cannot overlook the fact that we have become a digital society. The amount of time that children are spending in front of screens has grown significantly. Eight-to-10-year-olds are spending roughly 8-10 hours a day on electronics, and the fact that many 2-to-3-year-olds can operate a tablet better than an adult is scary, since it is recommended by the American Pediatrics Association that children under 2 years old should have no screen time. We have allowed the gift of media to take away the opportunities for children to be bored and to explore and find ways to play.

Children run from structured activity to activity. Their schedules are jam-packed, often causing stress and anxiety. There is very little time for children to relax through play or be bored— times when they can explore and really be creative.

We need to take a step back and assess how we are engaging our children and encouraging their play so that they have the well-developed motor system and organized sensory system to be successful. So, as we start moving into the holiday gift-buying season, take a moment to really think about what you are choosing to buy for the children in your life. While educational play is useful, it shouldn’t come at the expense of pure, fun, active, imagination-driven play.