Play, while it cannot change the external realities of children’s lives, can be a vehicle for children to explore and enjoy their differences and similarities and to create, even for a brief time, a more just world where everyone is an equal and valued participant.

 – Patricia G. Ramsey, contemporary American educational psychologist

Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.

 – Kay Redfield Jamison, contemporary American professor of psychiatry

This summer, I watched with joy, relief, and gratitude as the ribbon was cut on a new playground in our city park — joy at the squeals of delight as the kids ran, spun, and swung on the new equipment; relief because a year of planning and fundraising was over; and gratitude for the people in our small, rural community as well as for the people at Kaboom!, who helped make it all possible.

For me, the motivation to get involved in building a new playground was, initially, concerns about safety. Kids are naturally going to test their abilities and challenge their limits on a playground. I wanted to feel comfortable that the equipment in the park where I played with my son was safe for him and for everyone else. Through the process, however, I became an outspoken advocate for play and a big fan of Kaboom!

 

Kaboom! is a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization dedicated to saving play across the country. They provide resources and grant opportunities to schools and communities to fight the epidemic of play deficit among our children.

Play deficit is a term used to describe the lack of opportunities for unstructured play among children, which is resulting in physical, intellectual, social, and emotional harm. As a mom/PA, I find the evidence in favor of play to be compelling.

Kaboom! reports that kids who play are healthier:

• Unstructured play may be an exceptional way to increase physical activity levels in children, thus reducing the potential of childhood obesity (Ginsburg, 2007).

• The Stanford School of Medicine recommends that children should engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day; at least half of this should take place at school in either gym class or at recess (Stanford School of Medicine, 2007).

• As levels of play have decreased, levels of obesity have skyrocketed; the prevalence of obesity in 6 to 11 year olds has more than tripled since the 1970s (Ogden, 2002).

• In neighborhoods without a park or playground, the incidence of childhood obesity increases 29%. Children with a park or playground within half-a-mile are almost five times more likely to be a healthy weight than children without playgrounds or parks nearby (Singh, 2010).

Kids who play are happier & more social:

• Free play gives children an outlet to express their emotions and feelings and helps them to develop a sense of who they are (Santer and Griffiths, 2007).

• Play is critical for stress relief as it allows kids to create fantasies that help them cope with difficult situations (Wenner, 2009).

• Free play can contribute significantly to the social and emotional development of young children as it improves language skills and allows kids to practice life skills such as conflict resolution, cooperation, sharing, and problem solving (Thian, 2006).

Kids who play are smarter:

• A recent study of 11,000 third graders shows that children who have more than 15 minutes of recess time per day are better behaved in class and are likely to learn more than peers who have had less than 15 minutes of recess (Barros, Silver, and Stein, 2009).

• Recent medical research has shown a relationship between physical activity and the development of brain connections (Jarrett, 2009).

• Children are less fidgety and more on-task when they have recess; and children with ADHD are among those who benefit the most (Jarrett, 2009).

Who would have known that something as simple as a space for children to play could provide such quantifiable health benefits, promote relationships within a community, and improve the economic value of a town? It’s enough to make me want to swing from the monkey bars!

Amy Klingler, MS, PA-C, practices primary care at the Salmon River Clinic in Stanley, Idaho.

This article originally appeared on JAAPA