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Play, Prescriptions and Purpose

A recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that doctors should write prescriptions for play during early-childhood checkups.

The report made national and even international headlines, shining a spotlight on the concept of ‘prescriptions for play’.

Few people who work in early child development would be surprised by the report’s contents. We’ve been saying many of the same things for a long time.

“Play is not frivolous; it is brain building,” the report said.

“Pediatricians can play an important role in emphasizing the role of a balanced curriculum that includes the importance of playful learning for the promotion of healthy child development,” the authors wrote.

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post September 14, children’s author Katherine Marsh decried the current thinking that:

“Play can’t be just what children do or what they enjoy — it has to serve a purpose”

She continued:

“No one wants his or her child to become a purposeless adult. But part of the joy of childhood is doing things because they anchor you to the moment, not because they will reap future benefits or rewards. There is a sense of mindfulness children feel when they play that so many of us long for as adults. This is why the AAP report is so important — and why we need to implement its philosophy by trusting ourselves as parents and teachers, not by following doctor’s orders. True play is freedom from purpose, and no doctor can prescribe that.”

Prescriptions might be a stretch, but it cannot hurt for family doctors to talk to parents about the vital role of play in childhood.

As for the ‘purpose’ argument, well, no activity can be classified as ‘play’ unless it involves fun and joy. But play DOES have a purpose.

In a sense, play is the work of children. They learn how things work. They explore and discover. They learn how to participate in group activities. They learn how to navigate the world around them. Play prepares children for adulthood.

We can acknowledge that purpose without fixating on it. Fixations can be unhealthy. Play, on the other hand, is part of healthy child development.

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