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Time For Play Every Day: It’s Fun And Fundamental

By Pathways Magazine

There was a time when children played from morning till night.

They ran, jumped, played dress-up, and created endless stories out of their active imaginations.

Now, many scarcely play this way at all. What happened?

  • Over four and half hours per day watching TV, video games, and computer screens

  • Academic pressure and testing, beginning with three-year-olds

  • Over scheduled lives full of adult-organized activities

  • Loss of school recess and safe green space for outdoor play

Decades of research clearly demonstrate that play—active and full of imagination —is more that just fun and games. It boosts healthy development across a broad spectrum of critical areas: intellectual, social, emotional, and physical. The benefits are so impressive that every day of childhood should be a day for play.

The benefits of play

Child-initiated play lays a foundation for learning and academic success. Through play, children learn to interact with others, develop language skills, recognize and solve problems, and discover their human potential. In short, play helps children make sense of and find their place in the world.

Physical development: The rough and tumble of active play facilitates children’s sensorimotor development. It is a natural preventive for the current epidemic of childhood obesity. Research suggests that recess also boosts schoolchildren’s academic performance.

Academics: There is a close link between play and healthy cognitive growth. It lays the foundation for later academic success in reading and writing. It provides hands-on experiences with real-life materials that help children develop abstract scientific and mathematical concepts. Play is critical for the development of imagination and creative problem- solving skills.

Social and emotional learning: Research suggests that social makebelieve play is related to increases in cooperation, empathy, and impulse control, reduced aggression, and better overall emotional and social health.

Sheer joy: The evidence is clear, healthy children of all ages love to play. Experts in child development say that plenty of time for childhood play is one of the key factors leading to happiness in adulthood.

What you can do to help your child play?

Reduce or eliminate TV: Give your children a chance to flex their own imaginative muscles. They may be bored at first. Be prepared with simple playthings and suggestions for make-believe play to inspire their inner creativity.

Curtail time spent in adult-organized activities: Children need time for self-initiated play. Overscheduled lives leave little time for play.

Choose simple toys: A good toy is 10 percent toy and 90 percent child. The child’s imagination is the engine of healthy play. Simple toys and natural materials like wood, boxes, balls, dolls, sand, and clay invite children to create their own scene—and then knock them down and start over.

Encourage outdoor adventures: Reserve time every day for outdoor play where children run, climb, find secret hiding places, and dream up dramas. Natural materials—sticks, mud, water, rocks—are the raw materials of play.

Bring back the art of real work: Believe or not, adult activity—cooking, raking, cleaning, washing the car— actually inspires children to play. Children like to help for short periods and then engage in their own play.

Become an advocate for play

Spread the word: Share the evidence about the importance of imaginative play in pre-school and kindergarten, and at recess for older children, with parents, teachers, school officials, and policymakers.

Lobby for safe, well-maintained parks and play areas in your community. If safety is a concern, organize with other parents to monitor play areas.

Start an annual Play Day. For tips on how to do this in your neighborhood or town, see

This article was contributed by the Alliance for Childhood. The Alliance for Childhood promotes policies and practices that support children’s healthy development, love of learning, and joy in living. Their public education campaigns bring to light both the promise and the vulnerability of childhood. They act for the sake of the children themselves and for a most just, democratic, and ecologically responsible future. For more information visit their website:


  1. Emory Woodard, “Media in the Home 2000,” Annenberg Public Policy Center, U. of Penn., 2000.
  2. Anthony D. Pellegrini and P.K. Smith, “Physical Activity Play: The Nature and Function of a Neglected Aspect of Play,” Child Development 69 (3), June 1998; Susan J. Oliver and Edgard Klugman, “What WE Know About Play, ” Child Care Information Exchange, Sept. 2002.
  3. Doris Bergen, “The Role of Pretend Play in Children’s Cognitive Development, ” Early Childhood Research and Practice, 4 (1), Spring 2002; Jerome L. Singer, “Cognitive and Affective Implications of Imaginative Play in Childhood, ” in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: A Comprehensive Textbook, Melvin Lewis, ed., 2002; Oliver and Klugman, op. cit; Edgar Klugman and Sara Smilansky, Children’s Play and Learning: Perspectives and Policy Implications, New York; Teachers College Press, 1990; Pellegrini and Smith, op. cit.
  4. Robert J. Coplan and K.H. Rubin, “Social Play,” Play from Birth to Twelve and Beyond, Garland Press, 1998:Klugman and Smilansky, op.cit.; Singer, op. cit.
  5. Edward Hallowell, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, New York: Ballantine, 2002.