Dr. Julia Malkowski | Brannick Clinic of Natural MedicineWith the start of a new school year, families are turning their focus on homework, bed times and healthy lunches. All these are great and necessary for the developing child, yet we must make time for our children to play. Play is actually a priority for the developing child.

Our children’s nervous systems, including their brain, doesn’t fully develop until their twenties and play is a crucial component of this development. As children crawl, stand, climb, run, throw, jump, spin and play in general, these movements activate their developing neurological system. By being active, varying their heart rate and moving their muscles children are actually developing their brain. Muscle movements and sensory stimulation connect to the brain and are responsible for creating and strengthening the matter and connections of the brain. This motor/muscle development and sensory processing lays the foundation for higher learning such as academics.

Scientific evidence has proven the many benefits of play for the developing child. In general, animals that play have larger and more complex brains. One study showed rats who play have larger brains than those who don’t play. Another study proved children who play performed better in school. Yet when these same children had screen time greater than or equal to two hours per day, their grades were not improved even though they were playing. Countries that have more recess tend to have higher academic scores as well. One remarkable study showed improved vocalization in rats after just one hour of play. This is quite significant and demonstrates just how essential play is to the developing brain.

Play actually helps your children develop, not just neurologically but emotionally. Play provides the opportunity for the developing child to experience empathy, loyalty and intimacy within their group activities. Children work together, resolve conflict, regulate their emotions, exert self-control, follow rules and negotiate within the play setting. Play contributes to the child’s developing sense of identity, autonomy, competence, initiative, civic duties, and connection. Studies consistently link play with a positive sense of well-being and a lack of play with anxiety, depression and personality disorders. In one study, researchers found the best predictor of academic performance in eighth grade was a child’s social skills in third grade.

Historically, children have played during all their free-time. Anthropologists have noted children in hunter gatherer societies played from dawn until dusk. Unfortunately, children’s opportunities for play have been on a steady decline with the agricultural, industrial revolutions and the current busy schedules of the modern family. In a recent study 85% of mothers cited television viewing as the reason their children did not play outside. We are living in the age of busy schedules and when children do play, it is generally adult-directed play dates. Research supports free-play and risky play as the most beneficial to the developing child. When children play within their group and do not have an end goal in mind this is free play and is extremely beneficial. Think sandlot, not little league. When children play in a thrilling and exciting activity that involves a risk of physical injury, testing limits and exploring boundaries, this is risky play and is also extremely beneficial—especially for the developing child’s emotional health. If too little fear is induced, the activity is boring; if too much is induced, it becomes no longer play, but terror. Nobody but the child himself or herself knows the right amount of risk, which is why all such play must be self-directed and self-controlled. Risky play is associated with a decreased incidence of psychopathology and neuroticism. Beyond the physically challenging situations, children also put themselves into socially challenging situations in their play, which contribute to their emotional and social development. Playing outdoors can benefit the developing immune and endocrine systems and is therefore essential until puberty, ideally
high school ages as well.

With the myriad benefits of play, you might be wondering how and how often should my children play. As a mother and a doctor, I encourage my children to play as often as possible. I value play as the number one activity for my children as the beneficial effects are so far reaching and essential for their neurological, immune and endocrine systems. Each family has a different schedule that works for them and balance is essential. Sitting and watching TV or playing a video game is not an appropriate activity for the developing nervous system of the child. Steve Jobs did not allow his own children to play with the iPad until 12 years of age and these guidelines are utilized in our home as well. To prioritize free play, we limit screen time, that is TV, computers and tablets to two hours per week during the school year, which generally
turns into weekly family movie night. This schedule allows our children time for sports, homework, reading and family activities. For the types of play, I encourage free play and risky play as research supports these activities. Arnica Montana 30c is always on hand for any bumps
or bruises that have occurred. For the developing child, diet, hydration, sleep, social life and emotional life are all determinants of their health, yet play is equally important.

Julia Malkowski ND Candidate, DC, BSc
Brannick Clinic of Natural Medicine


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