Helping Children Rediscover Play

Babies reach for their parents’ cellphones before they can talk. Toddlers prefer to have their bedtime stories read on a tablet. Preschoolers clamor for interactive games. No wonder a recent study from the Pew Internet Project found that parents are more likely to download apps than other people who own interactive devices.

There’s no question that kids like apps, but are they actually good for them? The answer isn’t yet clear but some experts in childhood development worry that kids are spending too much time with screens and not enough time with three-dimensional play. The Kaiser Family Foundation now estimates that the average child spends almost eight hours a day engaged with televisions, computers and portable devices, squeezing out more traditional play activities.

Experts define play as any activity or game initiated by a child. Instead of being something frivolous that kids do in their free time, experts believe open-ended, child-led play is crucial to development for at least two reasons. First, play allows children to master increasingly complex physical, mental and emotional challenges, giving them confidence in their abilities to function in the outer world. Second, initiating play allows a child to follow his or her personal whims and fantasies, exploring a unique inner landscape that leads to discovery of what’s interesting, motivating, and inspiring.

Quality interactive experiences may give children a sense of mastery but they aren’t particularly good at promoting self-discovery. In fact, some apps are so thoroughly designed by adults that they may actually stifle imagination. For many years, experts have warned that video games encourage kids to watch and react rather than reflect and create. Now it seems likely that parents should also pay attention to apps that impose an adult agenda on play, turning kids into consumers instead of explorers.

Restoring genuine playtime isn’t simply a matter of keeping kids away from screens. Parents will want to set the stage and create what the Alliance for Childhood calls “Time to Play Everyday.” (The alliance has useful fact sheets about play in the publications section of their website, Here are some of the qualities that make play most rewarding for children and, for that matter, adults.

Multi-Sensory. Technology, by its nature, strips down reality. No matter how cute the puppy is on the screen, he doesn’t poop, bite, or smell doggy so what your child learns is inevitably limited. Keep in mind that mess and disorder are often part of quality play. If possible, set aside an area where kids can roughhouse, use art supplies, and leave complicated projects in progress.

Physical. Using devices may also cut into the time children have for playing tag, riding bikes, and turning somersaults. One way to set limits on “butt time” is to locate and visit playgrounds in your community. Look at’s Family Fun tab for a help.

Open-ended. Interactive devices are, inevitably, programmed. Someone else figures out what will happen in response to a child’s action. Free play may also have rules but they are created—and changed—by the child. Following a child’s lead is often difficult parents who may be tempted to show a child how to do things “better.” Try putting your urge to “help” on hold. If you join in your child’s play, ask questions and let your child come up with the answers.

Social. When kids interact more with digital devices, they often interact less with people. That’s a problem according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. They point out that children learn to cooperate by playing with other children, and they offer suggestions that will help parents facilitate peaceful playdates ( Indeed, there’s growing evidence that adults who stay in touch with their playfulness throughout life are healthier, happier, and more successful.

Interactive devices aren’t going away, and they definitely have a place in the lives of 21st century children as well as their parents. The trick is finding balance. You may, for example, hand your phone to your child for a ride to the park. Once you get there, however, turn off all devices, run through the grass, kick a ball, dig in the sand, and abandon yourselves to good old-fashioned playtime.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years. Visit to read other columns.

@ Copyright, 2016, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.