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The Magic of Play

I felt a strange wave of nostalgia mingled with pity for kids today as I read Beverly Cleary books with my child the other night. Cleary's characters Henry Huggins, Beezus, and Ramona play "brick factory" and smash bricks into dust. They tie a jump rope between two trees to make a tightrope. They put on plays and build boats out of scrap lumber. Compare that to our kids' carefully structured and supervised playtime.

Today we call unstructured fun "free play." But many kids don't get nearly enough of it anymore, a growing chorus of child-development experts is warning.

Hide-and-seek: Where's the play?

It may seem obvious that kids need to play. Trouble is, a lot of what passes for play lately doesn't quite cut it. "Playing" organized sports, for instance, isn't child-led or open-ended -- two key traits of true play. Neither is "playing" computer games -- and today's kids spend more time with computers, TV, and game screens than on any other activity except school and sleeping. Even babies miss playtime while watching "brain-building videos," going to classes, or being dazzled by toys that do the talking (and thinking) for them.

Add in the fact that the number of schools providing recess dropped from 96 percent in 1989 to 70 percent in 1999, leading the National PTA to launch a Rescuing Recess campaign. Playgrounds go unused by kids too busy with extracurriculars. A planned New York City playground even promises "play workers" to help kids get the job -- I mean play -- done!

Some fun.

It's true that classes, supervised sports, and even video games can have a useful place in modern childhood. Extracurricular activities can put kids on a path to academic success. But too much of even a good thing crowds out what we know is as crucial for kids as food, water, and air: plain old play.

When your baby drops a spoon off a high chair over and over, it's a game that makes him smarter: Hmm, will Mom give it back again? What if I drop it off the other side? Will it make a different sound? From day one, play is how kids figure out the way things work, practice social skills, learn to think creatively, develop self-sufficiency, and discover their true interests.

"Silencing play is as harmful to healthy development -- if not more so -- as hurrying kids to grow up too soon," says psychologist David Elkind, author of The Power of Play.

Too little time for fun leads to increased stress for kids, and could lead to anxiety and depression, according to a major report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Jill Stamm, Ph.D., director of the New Directions Institute for Infant Brain Development in Phoenix, notes that it can even lead to stress in adults. And forsaking active play for academics isn't helping our growing obesity epidemic one bit.

Nobody's suggesting that playtime should be another "to do" penciled on a parent's list and programmed into a child's day. Just the opposite, in fact. Providing it is as easy as stepping back and encouraging what comes naturally to your child, age by age:

BABIES (Birth to 12 months)

How they play: Kicking at a mobile or gumming a block may not look like much, but nearly every "idle" activity is both fun and essential to a baby. As she plays, her brain works to organize the incoming information into meaningful patterns, and she gains control over herself and her environment.

Ways to support them:

Have fun every chance you get. "Play should fill most of your baby's waking hours, aside from feeding," says Stamm. And her favorite plaything is you. You don't have to work too hard: Oldies but goodies like peekaboo, for instance, teach object permanence (that when something can't be seen, it's still there). Patty-cake builds coordination. Bonus: They help you bond, too.

Pick toys designed for her age range -- it's about safety, not smarts -- that stimulate the senses, like infant gyms, rattles, and textured board books.

Hit the floor. Infants are carried or strapped into seats so often that they have less of a chance to practice pre-crawling and other motor skills.

Leave room for solo play. Read your baby's cues. When she turns away from you and fusses, she's saying "Enough!" She's getting ready to eat or sleep, or needs time alone to observe (and learn from) her surroundings.

TODDLERS (1-3 years)

How they play: "Children two to six learn best through games they make up themselves," Elkind says. A toddler's growing curiosity and improving fine and gross motor skills mean all the world's his to explore, from the kitchen cabinets to Fluffy's tail.

Most toddlers like being around other kids, but mostly play side-by-side (known as parallel play) because they see themselves as the center of the world; sharing is a sophisticated concept.

Ways to support them:

Choose open-ended toys. Simple playthings such as blocks, balls, and dolls -- and even everyday items like wooden spoons or shoeboxes -- spark the imagination more than those that can "do" only one thing, or are mostly watched, like talking stuffed animals or motorized cars. (See "Fun-Starters" for more ideas.)

Remember that play happens everywhere -- not just in a sandbox or with a toy. Pouring water from plastic cups in the bathtub and chasing bubbles on the back deck are surefire toddler fun.

Go outside every day. Rain or shine or cold, toddlers need the stimulation of nature and the chance to burn energy.

Take it easy with TV. A show or two here and there won't hurt, but every hour spent in front of a screen is an hour not spent in active play. Try to watch together and talk about what you see.

Rotate toys. Keep your selection fresh by putting away some toys every week or so and bringing out "new" ones (your kids won't notice -- yet).

PRESCHOOLERS (3 to 5 years)

How they play: Better language skills turn children this age into little storytellers; fantasy play and role-playing become more elaborate now that they can understand more complicated concepts such as time and the relationships between objects. Better motor skills means they can be more physical, learning to ride a trike or accurately throw and catch a ball.

These advances also help children play well with others. This is when many of them form first friendships.

Ways to support them: Choose preschools that favor play over academics. "Parents often get impatient with dress-up and blocks and want to know when their kids will move on to ABC's and 'useful stuff,'" Stamm says. "But free play's important -- it causes the brain to wire in a healthy way." A good preschool focuses on social and emotional needs over cognitive learning.

Find ways your child can play with other kids. Besides preschool and the playground, try the YMCA and library.

Limit screen time. There's no proof that computer games or "educational" videos make kids smarter. Don't worry that your child won't be computer literate -- she will.

Encourage creative play. Art and drama suit the kind of exploratory thinking that preschoolers are doing now.

Accept their obsessions. A deep focus on one activity means your child is mastering a skill or concept.

Don't worry about stereotyping. "Boys tend to spend more time with Legos and spatial-mechanical toys because their brains develop faster in this area," says Michael Gurian, author of Nurture the Nature. Girls, on the other hand, have better fine motor and language skills at this age, so they do more writing and pre-reading. One's not better than the other -- they're simply different.

Don't worry about preparing your child for kindergarten. "Kids aren't supposed to come to school reading and adding," says Stamm.

GRADE SCHOOL (5 and up)

How they play: Kids are all about friends now, especially those who share their budding interests and sensibilities. Expressing individuality becomes important, too. A more complex understanding of how the world works brings a preoccupation with rules and jokes.

Ways to support play:

Get them moving. The more sedentary kids are, the worse their numbers for blood pressure, cholesterol, and insulin, a 2006 study shows. Often a nudge from you is all it takes.

Regulate screen time. Even Wii-style games that get kids off the couch keep them from playthings like dolls or building sets, which affect their brains differently, says Gurian.

Don't overbook. Most kids do best with no more than three extracurricular activities: One social (like Scouting), one athletic (soccer), one artistic (piano lessons).

Ease into team sports. Organized games provide exercise but are adult-directed and involve little spontaneity. Most experts don't recommend them before age 5 or 6. Even then, keep participation to one sport per season and suggest different ones throughout the year.

Help your child to be well-rounded. Give him chances to explore a range of activities. Be wary of summer camps that turn play into work (like sports, computer, or academic ones).

Watch for red flags. Moodiness, nervousness about an activity, and making excuses not to go may be signs your child needs more free time.

At least once a week, play together as a family, whether you go for walks or tell stories.

I admit that I still feel a guilty pang on a Saturday when not one of my four kids has a lesson or outing slated. Should I take them to a museum? Lead them on a hike? Sometimes I do. But more often I sip my tea and relax, knowing that hanging out together reading, or letting them muck around in the yard, or whatever else they'll think up next, is just what their bodies and brains need most.

Paula Spencer is coauthor, with Jill Stamm, Ph.D., of Bright From the Start.