Safeguarding Play Time for Our Kids

Kids Playing by Jennifer Miller

“Friends are more important than devices.” I hear my son echo our family refrain as a friend arrives at our door with a request to play while E is in the midst of his screen time. We’ve talked about why screen time should be limited. He understands that his brain and body need lots of different experiences to develop and the screen offers only one. We’ve talked about how, if screen time takes up most of his time, then it takes away from experiences like playing with friends, family or on his own. And though, at times, it takes encouragement, he’ll typically turn off the screen and run out to play. It helps if I bring the friend inside and he looks up long enough to make eye contact. When he sees the gleaming eyes of his pal eager to bust out of our door into the beautiful day and discover whatever adventure awaits, then he’s on his way.

Because we live in a differing reality from our own upbringing with easy access to highly engaging, fast-paced, often passive entertainment, we have a greater challenge in safeguarding play for our kids. But we know it’s critical. Play is the vocation of childhood. It’s the central vehicle for kids’ physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. In play, a child is in control of the world he creates, his only limitation being his imagination. Developmental Psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote, “In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.” Children have the ability and urge, if left to their own devices, to create highly advanced pretend play scenarios, both social and solo. In social play, kids practice cooperation, negotiation, inclusion, communication, flexibility and diversity appreciation. In solo play, children can grow their sense of identity and also practice perspective taking abilities as they pretend to be another person.

Pretend play also can serve a significant role in a children’s mental health and sense of well-being. They are able to face the most feared obstacles with the courage of a true hero whether it’s confronting monsters or villains, weapons or diseases and even injury or death. Through play, they can conquer these fears and show their strength and resilience.

Social and solo play not only contribute to developing kids’ social and emotional life skills but they also contribute to academics. Often imaginative play will include counting (math), categorizing (science) and storytelling (language) among many other cognitive essentials for school age children. And there is just no such thing as growing too old to play. When adults are creative or engage in any art form, there is play at work.

Jayne Greenberg of the President’s Fitness Council in the NBC Parent Toolkit Twitter Chat offered her perspectives on physical development and play. She advised that young children should not be inactive for longer than a 60 minute period of time. She also advised limiting screen time to two hours per day though the average American child experiences seven hours of screen time per day. So if play is essential to a child’s learning, then our most critical role as parents is safeguarding the chance for it to occur. And those windows of time tend to be narrow particularly with school-age children who are focused on an academic curriculum most of the day and in after school programs including sports or tutoring. Also somehow dinner time and bath time have to figure into the agenda. And that leaves precious few moments during the week to allow for that playtime.

Here are some ideas for ways parents can safeguard their children’s play.

Maintain a daily sacred time for play. Perhaps you name the time after homework and before dinner as free play or monkey time? Play shouldn’t be a chore but if it’s a treat to get to that moment in the day when freedom reigns and time for joy and enjoyment is calling, those perspectives will only lead to an eager response from your child.

Dream together about play when not playing. When outside the home at events or extracurriculars, use the stimulus around you to fuel your imagination and discuss play ideas. “Oh – just like that collage (at the Art Museum), I”ll bet we could gather materials in our yard and see what we could make!”

Establish a family value – “People before screens.” This one challenges the adults in our family more than the children. This value compels us to pay attention Mom turning off cell phonewhen people around us need it. If a friend comes knocking during screen time, we focus on the friend. If a family member has a story to share, we put down devices. We never bring phones to our dinner table. While eating together, we silence them at that time so they are not pinging, dinging and singing in another room. We want to send the message over and again, “The people we love and who are standing in front of us are the most important and warrant our attention.”

Educate your children on the “whys” of limiting screen time. If parents are the rule setters and enforcers without any involvement or understanding on the children’s part, there are bound to be power struggles. Why establish that dynamic? Offering your children an understanding of how their time is divided and how it impacts theirIMG_1136 development is not only possible but necessary. As they progress through the school years and the demands upon their free time grow greater and more intense, they will have practiced time management and prioritization. Try drawing your own poster on their divisions of time to help them see what free time they have. This will also give them the chance to have practiced using their time for play, even when a playmate is unavailable. This “habit” of how they use their free time can contribute to their sense of well-being and self-care throughout the years into adulthood. For information and support on how to educate your children on the why’s of limiting screen time, check out the article, “Smart Home Media Use, Limiting Screen Time.”

Emphasize what your children are getting. Limiting, reducing or taking away all sound like punishment, to adults as well as children. So if we only focus on taking away screen time, children will view it as negative. Focus instead on what children are getting when they put down the device such as freedom, fun and creativity. They sacrifice a lot by spending all of their free time inside in front of a screen. Instead, they could be playing with their friends. They could be playing at the park. They could be using their imaginations.

And here are some ideas for creating a home environment that is conducive to play.

Co-create a home for all toys, supplies. Yes, it requires time to organize the constant influx of toys and supplies that children bring into our house. But how will they learn to care for their property if they are not involved in creating an organized space? So work together as a family to establish bins for art supplies, legos or mermaids. Label them and make them large enough to hold all that needs to be housed there. Then model working with your child a few times to put everything in its proper place. Reinforce and remind (with brief words before times to clean up) that they are responsible for putting all away. Classroom Spaces That Work author Marlynn K. Clayton writes that when children are responsible for keeping up an orderly space after play, it facilitates cooperation and “promotes a child’s sense of independence and self-reliance, encourages care of materials and creates a sense of safety and security so children are more likely to take risks in learning.”

Stock imaginative play supplies. Arts and crafts materials are wonderful to have at the ready. Costumes of all kinds serve as regular aids to pretend play (and are one of my favorite gifts for children). Stock tactile materials that will spur the imagination such as play dough, sand and bins of water or rice. Household tools (pots and wooden spoons make a great jam band) or occupational toys offer chances for children to enter into the adult world in their own exploratory way. My parents supplied me with forms of many kinds – outdated checks, train travel forms, waitress pads and driving logs. These were the basis for endless adventures. Musical instruments allow children to create their own compositions together. Building blocks of all kinds (Classic Legos without instructions, Connect-agons and Bristle blocks to name a few) can offer a child the chance to imagine.

Play with your children. It need not be every day. But your willingness to get down on the floor and allow your child to lead you in play has a positive influence in several ways. It deepens your trusting relationship. And it offers your child a rare opportunity to exercise control over the adults in his life. It gives him a leadership position and the chance to try on “being in charge.” Research shows that child-led play with parents sets the stage for children’s ability to play successfully with peers. Play along with whatever scenario your child instigates to see where it leads. I will often set a timer for myself to offer my own accountability in playing with my son. My time is limited with many responsibilities. The timer allows me to completely focus on play and realize that I’ll be guided to begin dinner or my next activity when the timer goes off.

Read daily with your children. Reading with your child, perhaps as part of your bedtime routine, can spur a child’s imagination through story. Watch as your child riffs on plot lines through his pretend play. Share in those stories together and discuss worlds that would not be a part of your existence if not for the gift of books.

In our Digital Age, parents have new role in safeguarding time for play. The benefits of ensuring play’s role in your child’s life are numerous. Not only will it advance his brain development, but it will deepen your connectedness as a family.


Clayton, M.K. & Forton, M.B. (2001). Classroom Spaces That Work. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

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