Why Play Is Vital For Child Brain Development

Posted on in Brain Health, Kid's Health by Dr. Graham Norton


Play is so important for kids and I saw something yesterday that compelled me to write about it.

I was at the beach playing with Zoey and I couldn’t help but notice this little girl. She couldn’t have been more than 3 years old. She was sitting in the sand, head down playing games on her iPad instead of playing in the water and sand with the other kids. Her brother tried to engage her twice with a beach ball, but she wasn’t interested. She almost seemed disconnected. This really struck a cord with me.

This is not to judge parenting styles – who knows, the kid could have been playing all morning and maybe the Dad was exhausted and wanted a digital babysitter (he was getting a sweet tan on)…but it compelled me to make this blog about the need for REAL PLAY.

Screen Time Recommendations

The American Acadamey of Paediatrics advises that children under the age of 2 should actually have NO screen time with the exception of video chatting with other people (on an infrequent basis). From ages 2-5 it’s advised for children to have no more than 1 hour of quality programming per day. TOTAL. This is all different kinds of screen time, combined.

Why does this really matter?

Though all of our childhood years are vital, the first 2 years of life in particular are massively important for a baby’s brain development. It’s during this time that their frontal lobes (the more executive centres of the brain) are maturing. These centres are most involved in learning, planning, complex movement patterns, speech, decision making, social interaction, and behaviour.

The brain develops best with complex, multi sensory inputs. In other words, positively stimulating environments. A child on an iPad watching a show or playing a game is getting lots of visual and auditory stimulus, but the other senses are disengaged. A child in nature, or playing with other children gets it all. Visual, auditory, touch, smell, taste (some sandy grapes for Zoey yesterday).

All of this dynamic and complex input to the brain is what nurtures it, and allows it to grow the way it was designed to.

In order to develop healthy children, screens are far from sufficient, and can NEVER replace real human to human, human to nature relationships.

This is no surprise, but too much screen time has been linked to:

* Obesity
* Irregular sleep schedules and shorter duration of sleep
* Behavioural problems
* Loss of social skills
* Violence
* Less time for play

Our children need to re-engage with their design. Play, and community is part of that design.

What exactly does play mean?

Play is “any spontaneous or organized activity that provides enjoyment, entertainment, amusement, or diversion.” Play is generally divided into two main categories – Structured, and Unstructured. Both are vital to foster healthy development.

Structured play is typically guided by an adult and requires the child to follow directions or rules. This can be things like board games, puzzles, dance classes, art classes, and sports.

Unstructured play is “free reign”! A child is free to do what interests them. This could be playing in a park on a jungle gym, playing dress up, exploring new environments outdoors. Essentially, no rules or guidelines, just creativity and freedom.

How much play is ideal?

Toddlers should get AT LEAST two hours of unstructured play and AT LEAST 30 minutes of adult lead structured play per day. It’s important to note that screen time is not considered play. The skills that are developed through play are the skills needed to be an independent, capable human. It teaches us how to fill our time when no one is directing us. It teaches us how to problem solve. It builds our creativity and imagination. It teaches human interaction and negotiation, resiliency, flexibility and adaptability. It pushes us to take new risks, process emotions, discover interests, and build confidence. Really, it contributes to a strong brain and strong self esteem in our children.

Technology certainly has massive perks and has made life easier on so many levels. However, at the same time, it is contributing to more and more disconnected kids who have failed to engage in their environments the way they were designed to. We are just starting to see the downside to our health from the technological era, and it isn’t pretty.

This doesn’t mean to throw technology to the wayside, it simply means we need to be aware of what our bodies REQUIRE for health, and make sure those needs are getting met.

No computer can replace a mother, father, grandparent, sibling, cousin, or friend. No screensaver of a lake can replace the smells, sounds, tastes, and feelings of the real deal.

Turn off the tech, and go PLAY.

Hi! I'm Dr. Graham and I am passionate about delivering the most comprehensive and results driven spine care available. I love working with people who want to make a real and lasting difference in their health. I love travelling locally, outdoor activities like road biking and skate skiing, good coffee, and my family (Dr. Marie, and our two wonderful daughters Zoey & Eloise).