Employee & Community Health

The power of play

12/20/2018 by Drs. Angela Mattke and Paige Partain

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Kids shooting baskets, playing tag, acting out their favorite superhero, playing with dolls or dinosaurs, engaging in laser tag. Looks like fun — but it’s more than that. They’re unleashing the power of play to promote their physical and mental well-being.

Play is part of children exploring their world, developing a sense of self and self-esteem, learning what works and what doesn’t, and interacting with other children. Good old-fashioned, creative, unstructured playtime not only helps children develop social and language skills, it also gets them moving.

In a world where screens are everywhere, it’s important for children to seek out other activities. While the screen itself is not harmful, pediatricians worry when it’s the only kind of playtime kids are getting — especially if it takes away from time spent playing with their friends. That’s why we ask about it at well-child visits.

In general, we like to see children have some active play every day, whether it’s formal like being on a sports team or informal such as jumping rope on the playground.

One of the benefits of informal play is that it encourages kids to create their own structure and sparks their imagination. They’ll surprise you with their creativity, resiliency and ability to work with other kids to reach shared goals. That’s when adults need to step back and just let them play. For example, give kids a large cardboard box. Then watch them turn it into a cave, a fort, a spaceship, a boat or a time machine and build a whole world around it.

Play also has a special role for children who have experienced difficult situations such as abuse or neglect. It gives them a special language for expressing their feelings and emotions, especially when they might not yet have the skills or words to explain. Communicating through play can be life-changing for them.

That’s the power of play — for all kids.

Dr. Angela Mattke is a general pediatrician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (CPAM) at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She is also host of Mayo Clinic's interactive FacebookLive show called, #AskTheMayoMom, where she discusses and answers audience questions about common pediatric health topics. You can follow her on Twitter at @DrAngelaMattke. For more information about pediatric health topics, follow @mayoclinickids on Twitter.

Dr. Paige Partain is a general pediatrician in ECH’s Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (CPAM) and practices at Mayo Family Clinic Northeast in Rochester. Her areas of interest include preventive medicine and pediatric behavioral health, including ADHD (attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder), depression, anxiety and eating disorders.