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All About Play

Play is Important

Recent Research and Trends

Scientists, psychologists, educators and others who are part of the play movement say that most of the social and intellectual skills one needs to succeed in life and work are first developed through childhood play. Children learn to control their impulses, learn to solve problems, negotiate, think creatively and work as a team when they build a fort outdoors or create their own rules for games.

Skeptical About the Value of Play?

For play skeptics, experiments conducted by the Early Childhood Cognition Lab in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology show children calculating probabilities during play, developing assumptions about their physical environment, and adjusting perceptions according to the direction of authority figures. Other researchers are also discovering a breathtaking depth to play: how it develops chronological awareness and its link to language development and self-control.

From 6,000 "play histories" of patients, clinical psychologist, Dr. Stuart Brown, now at the National Institute for Play can see a direct correlation between play behavior and happiness, from childhood into adulthood. No only that, it turns out that kids who play, do better in school! Play-school Studies

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all children have at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.

Summarizing the state of children's play, and the advocating for its restoration, is the very readable clinical report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2007 on the "The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds." (PDF)

See more from the Alliance for Childhood on the importance of play (PDF).

Play is Disappearing

These days, without very conscientious parents or intentional teachers, true children's play doesn't happen on its own. The culture of childhood has changed:

  • Today's children are rarely left unsupervised to make up their own games and make-believe,
  • We're afraid to let our children play in the skin-your-knees, fall-out-of-trees world of the outdoors,
  • It's far too easy to keep kids occupied with user-friendly phone apps, electronic toys and screens of all sorts, 
  • Busy, working parents have little time or energy to make play a priority - or to allow the mess of play in their homes
  • Many people simply aren't convinced children need play,
  • Many assume their children are getting the benefit of play if they have the latest 'educational' toys or play team sports, (which parents increasingly rely on because they are supervised),
  • Even the most aware parents admit to, and regret, the scheduling of play around their own and their children’s busy lives, and the need to cram education and other ‘purpose-driven’ goals into play.

How Big is the Problem?

Studies by the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center highlight this trend. Since the late 1970s, children have lost 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25 percent drop in play and a 50 percent drop in unstructured outdoor activities.

According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year, children spend far too much time in front of a screen — 7 hours 38 minutes a day on average.

Technology and a wide-scale change in toys and how we spend leisure time undermine long-term emotional and intellectual abilities, say experts. An 8-year-old today, for instance, is more likely to be playing with a toy that has a computer chip than making up an imaginary game with friends in the backyard or street.

Only one in five children live within walking distance (a half-mile) of a park or playground, according to a 2010 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control, making them even less inclined to frolic outdoors.

But, says Susan Linn, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, “what is changing is that there's a growing recognition that the erosion of play may be a problem... and we need to do something about it.”

What is Needed to Restore Children's Play? (PDF)

Compilation of Play Studies from the National Museum of Play

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