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Healthy, happy kids: A child at play will stay at play

by Heather Scrivner-Mediate
Center for Creative Play ®

A little physics goes a long way

The first law of physics states that "a body in motion will stay in motion." Take it one step further; a child at play will stay at play.

Children from different cultural backgrounds playing together

Play offers children a physically engaging opportunity to learn the skills they need to be successful in the classroom and later on in the workplace. Play also fosters a love of learning. As parents, educators, therapists, and community leaders it is our duty to ensure that warm and welcoming play opportunities exist for infants through adolescents. While we most actively associate play with childhood, the ability to play impacts our lives at every age. The positive play experiences we create during childhood allow us to participate in and enjoy the benefits of play for a lifetime. "It [play] is where a toddler gets the nerve to take that first step, a child learns socialization skills that will be used in adulthood, and an older person keeps their will to continue a healthy lifestyle," says GreenOrlando.com. "We should all lead the charge in recommending, influencing, and incorporating play into children's, adult's and senior's lives."

Children who are deprived of the opportunity to participate in play often experience a negative impact on their overall health and well being, as well as serious developmental effects. Research has even suggested that their brains may develop smaller. Children across the board are at risk, and those who experience play deprivation are often depressed, more aggressive, lack social skills, and as adults may have difficulty in the workplace. Play deprivation does not target a specific ability level, race, culture, or economic background. Every child needs a variety of unstructured play opportunities in their daily lives. In the race to educate our children, and ensure that they have every advantage, how soon we forget that 'early childhood' includes children 0-8, and that play is an important and life long activity.

Creating a play opportunity for all children

Playing the drums - Hanah (in wheelchair) with Lacy

Children with disabilities are often at a greater risk for play deprivation due to barriers in the environment. The barriers include actual physical barriers, as well as philosophies and attitudes that inhibit inclusion. However, the benefits of play are too important to deny any child the opportunity to experience them. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently reported on the benefits, charging all pediatricians to support and encourage parents and caregivers in actively including play in the lives of their children. Families need access to play environments where every family member can fully participate and children can play together, side by side, with their peers. Peers that include children who use wheelchairs, have Autism, or are typically developing.

Creating a play opportunity for all children and a life long advantage often begins with the play environment. Most play environments are designed for children with typical development or children with disabilities, but not both. Everyone has seen a traditional playground and a specially adapted playground, but not always a playground where every child can play. Lack of quality community play opportunities puts children with disabilities at an even greater risk for play deprivation. Environments that are warm and welcoming to children and families of all abilities have often gone far beyond the requirements of the ADA, relative to facility design, accessibility features, and staff training. They have incorporated the seven principles of Universal Design in order to design an environment that allows every person to engage with, and move in the facility to the best of their ability. Play Environments that allow every family to create a meaningful experience contribute to a family's overall wellness.

The benefits of unstructured play

Children playing with a clear plastic curtain

There is no question-Sir Isaac Newton was a smart man. He pioneered the laws of physics and unknowingly discovered the secret to happy, healthy children and adults. If we provide our children with the play opportunities they need early in life they will continue to "play" throughout their lifetime. "It's simple," remarks Dr. Michael Chobanian. "Without places to play children are less likely to play. The benefits [of unstructured play] are endless, physically, socially, and creatively."

Ideas for incorporating play into everyday life

Pretend play

Learning to clean teeth using pretend dentures

The ever faithful, easy to find, inexpensive cardboard box. A recent inductee to The National Toy Hall of Fame, the cardboard box inspires the imagination in an un-paralleled way. As grown ups, we shrug our shoulders and wonder what is so exciting about a box, when we should be recognizing that a box can be anything and everything a child wants it to be. A castle, a rocket ship, a submarine, a club house, it doesn't matter, if they can dream it, it can be it. Next time you get a new fridge, dishwasher, or set of filing cabinets, give the box to your children, students, or therapy clients and they will take it from there. If we're lucky, they'll take us along.

Sensory play

Food is our friend, but it's not just for eating. Try creating a sensory experience using jello or pudding. While these make delicious snacks, children are often equally engaged by the opportunity to scoop, smash, pour and mash the unusual consistencies. This also creates a multi-dimensional perspective about food, and is non-toxic. You can create this experience using a sensory table, on a regular table, in a baby pool, in a sink, or in a bucket. For an added dimension of fun, you can dye vanilla pudding with food coloring. Don't be afraid to get messy - cleaning up is a fantastic learning opportunity, and can even be made into a game.

Creative arts play

Dance, Dance, Dance! This is a great physical activity for children, and a way to let them express themselves while burning calories. It is also a way to expose them to a variety of musical styles, tempos, etc. Even if you only have time for a few songs, this is a way for children to engage in unstructured play with or without the adults in their lives. It allows them to see an adult in a different light … even a two-year-old couldn't take me seriously while dancing and singing to The Hokey Pokey.

Draw, paint, color!

Child sharing his artwork with mum and dad

This is an opportunity to combine structure with creativity and imagination. An adult can offer suggestions, or even an assignment, but the creative license belongs to the child. The key is to give direction that will allow every child to take their project in a different direction. Who wants 25 identical pictures of a leaf?

More information and play resources

"Children are our most precious resource and we should all make it our top priority to create environments for them to play, explore and create magic. Families who play together grow together as a team. Amazing things happen to relationships when play is added."

Mindy Mylrea, Fitness Expert

Organizations that are making strides towards improving play opportunities across the country:

About the author

Center for Creative Play

Heather Scrivner-Mediate is Communications Manager at the Center for Creative Play (CFCP), a non-profit dedicated to providing all inclusive and developmentally appropriate play opportunities to children of all abilities. They promote the importance of play through an advisory practice, education, community outreach, and the operation of a 15,000 square foot playspace in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Page last updated 27 March 2015.