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Challenge: Start Today: Healthy Habits

Growing Up Healthy is More Than Food and Exercise – It’s Play Too

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Today, I watched two pre-school age children playing in a large sandbox in my neighbor’s backyard. Clearly, there was one toy that was the most coveted, and both wanted it badly. As I watched, one child had the toy and refused to give the other her turn. The child missing her turn began to negotiate. First, she offered two of her toys in exchange for the one. Not successful. Then, she got out of the sandbox, walked over to a riding toy and began to careen around the patio. The child left in the sandbox immediately began to complain that that was his riding toy. The little girl offered to let him have it, if she could have the sand toy. Deal done. I secretly applauded that little girl for her powers of negotiation and for the two moms who were sitting on the sidelines without interference.


All month long on the Today Show, the #StartToday series has been talking about making small positive changes to improve adult nutrition, fitness, finances and organization. It may be time now to take a look at growing healthier children through some positive changes in their daily lives. Most parents understand the importance of nutrition and exercise for physical health. Many, however, may not understand the importance of play.

What Play Does for Our Kids

There are so many critical skills that children develop as they engage in play – either independent or with others. Though there are far too many to enumerate in a single article, here are the biggies.

  • Very young children begin to learn how to interact with the world around them. They learn that they can create things and master the objects in their “worlds.” They develop imagination and use their toys in new and different ways; they make up stories and role plays. This creative thinking can allow them to come up with unique solutions to problems – a skill that they can take into their formal schooling and life.
  • Children learn to take small risks, to fail and try again, and to ultimately succeed. These experiences develop habits of goal setting and persistence.
  • Children learn how to process emotions and manage their fears
  • When play is not directed by an adult, children learn how to interact with their peers in all of the ways we want them to as adults – to advocate for themselves, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, to share, and to make decisions. They learn how to be members of a group and to be leaders at times too.

Some Alarming Trends

Since 1990, the amount of time children have for non-adult directed play and just for play itself has steadily decreased. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Parents have taken very seriously the need for their children be in organized activities and experiences. While these are good (they develop skills of following directions and rules in group settings, often along with physical exercise), too many of them result in what we now call the “hurried child” syndrome. Thus children may go from a soccer game, to a piano lesson and then on to a Kumon math class. Whew! It’s exhausting, and it has usurped time for just free play.
  • Two working parents often means that there may not be time to allow free play. Children are put in front of their devices, so that cooking and other household chores can be accomplished.
  • Since the “No-Child-Left-Behind” law of 2001, schools have been pressured to focus on reading and math schools, from kindergarten forward. Thus recess times have been cut in favor of more academic work.
  • Parents are fearful of their children playing outside without supervision, and they often do not have the time to go outside and keep watch.
  • There is limited access to play areas, especially for children who live in urban areas, most of which are quite a distance from parks.

Are There Solutions?

Of course there are. They will require parents and educators both to put into place time for play, especially for younger children in their pre-school and elementary years.

  • No elementary child should go without free-time recess at school
  • Parents must decide that a clean house and perfectly-prepared meal may not be as important as taking the time to arrange free-play activities with their children’s peers, to go to the park playground, or simply sit on the front porch while their children play in the front yard.

Play is a wonderful thing. We certainly love it when we have the chance. Let’s give our children the play that they need to grow up healthier and far more capable of dealing with what life may bring.

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