Has the focus on physical activity ruined playtime for kids?

A third of children in the U.S. are obese, and encouraging more active play is frequently cited as a great way to keep kids in shape. But creating scheduled playtime built only around physical activity might be draining the broader benefits out of play, a new study in Canada found.

parenting now logoA team of scientists at the University of Montreal set out to discover how children define play. 25 kids between 7 and 11 were interviewed and asked to take photographs to describe their favorite ways to play. The results of their novel study are published in the journal Qualatative Health Research.

The researchers found that physical activity is only one part of what kids like about playing, and that regimented physical play built around fitness doesn’t satisfy all needs for many kids, or meet their own definition of “play.” “By focusing on the physical activity aspect of play, authorities put aside several aspects of play that are beneficial to young people’s emotional and social health,” said the study’s supervisor, Professor Katherine Frohlich.

The researchers isolated four key elements of play from their interviews with the children.

  • Play happens only “as an end in itself.” Children understand play only for fun, not as a means to get physical activity or to improve their social skills.
  • Many forms of play the kids preferred were not active, including playing games, reading, or watching movies.
  • Children didn’t feel attached to scheduled activities. The study described their feelings as “ambiguous.”
  • Risk is a central and pleasurable part of play, and building too much safety into playtime subtracts this important element for many kids.

The study’s abstract concludes that there is “a dissonance between children’s play promoted for physical health and the meaning of play for children as emotionally contingent, intrinsically motivated, and purposeless.” The researchers hope their findings will encourage parents and educators to think about how to better structure playtime.

For more on play, don’t miss the PBS NewsHour American Graduate report on California’s Playmaker school, where educators have tossed out desks, seating charts and grades in favor of a curriculum based on play.

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