Parents and children: The power of play

by Diana Hembree

Diverse-group-of-children, Parents and children: The power of play, Culture Currents

Brought to you by Stress Health, an initiative of the Center for Youth Wellness based in San Francisco’s Bayview district, which brings you a monthly column on parenting and resilience.

Did you ever wonder if you should have spent more time checking homework than playing tag or shooting hoops with your kid on the basketball court?

Well, cross that worry off your list. It turns out you gave your child one of the best possible gifts for adulthood: the power of play.

And that’s especially important these days, when kids are glued to their cell phones, kindergarten has replaced play with workbooks and a lot of elementary schools have gone so far as to slash recess.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics has an important message: It’s time to put the play back in childhood.

Playtime that stimulates young brains and gets young bodies moving is too important to lose. The exercise kids get when playing helps protect them against obesity and makes it easier for them to learn and concentrate during school.

In addition, play can have special benefits for children who’ve had a tough childhood marked by abuse, neglect or other Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). A recent report from the Academy notes that the mutual joy and shared bonds that parents and children can experience during play can calm the body’s response to stress. That makes play a healthy antidote to aggressiveness and uncontrolled emotions.

Father-playing-with-son-web, Parents and children: The power of play, Culture Currents

As the Academy spells out in its report “The Power of Play,” imaginative play is fun, spontaneous, and full of magic and “joyous discovery” – all crucial ingredients for healthy brain development. Kids aren’t wasting time when lost in their own world: They’re laying important foundations for healthy minds, bodies and relationships.

Those little guys playing ship in an empty box? They’re taking risks, experimenting and testing boundaries. They’re also learning collaboration, negotiation and a sense of control, along with a good dose of decision-making, creativity and leadership, the report says.

Put simply, play teaches kids how to get along with other people, develop empathy and solve conflicts – things many adults could stand to learn.

Play is so crucial to child development, in fact, that the Academy is even calling on pediatricians to write prescriptions for it. Here are some of the AAP’s ideas for encouraging your kids to play:

Child-on-slide-web, Parents and children: The power of play, Culture Currents

Play back-and-forth games with your little ones. Games like peek-a-boo, hide-and-seek and tag teach kids about social cues and give them a feeling of security, according to the AAP.

Keep it simple. The last thing parents need to do is go out and buy a bunch of new toys. Whatever you have around the house is best: balls, empty boxes, old clothes for dress-up games, dirt and trees. The child will supply imagination.

Take it outside. Outdoor play promotes “sensory integration” – the ability to process all of the five senses. But nearly half of American preschoolers did not go outside to play with mom or dad, according to the report. If your neighborhood park is safe, try to spend some time in nature with your child every day.

Allow for some rough and tumble play. Don’t try to eliminate all risk, the AAP advises. Sure, every child is a winner, but it’s OK for everyone to learn how to lose graciously.

Bring back recess. Encourage your school to let young children play outdoors every day. Research shows countries with more recess enjoy better academic success. On top of that, the AAP noted, recess is the best place for children to make friends with people of diverse backgrounds.

What are some of your favorite memories of play as a child? What have you noticed about the way kids play today compared to your own childhood? We’d love to hear from you.

Stress Health is an initiative of the Center for Youth Wellness, based in San Francisco’s historic Bayview district and founded by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. This column is adapted from Stress Health’s monthly blog, which covers the six areas in which research shows that parents can build resilience in their children and/or help them heal from ACEs: healthy relationships, exercise, sleep, nutrition, mindfulness and mental health. We’ll be featuring monthly columns on everything from parenting with ACEs to the value of chores. Stay tuned!

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock


Resnick M. (2017). Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivate Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Yogman, M., et al. (2018, September). The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Pediatrics 142 (3). Retrieved from

Diana Hembree is a science writer for the Center for Youth Wellness. She is an award-winning journalist who has worked at Time Inc., the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Energy Bioscience Institute and has written or edited for Forbes, HealthDay, the Washington Post, PBS Frontline, Vibe and many other places. She can be reached at