Play: A joyful medicine

By Dr. Ruby TanMay 27, 2020

Play: A joyful medicine
Three-year-old Samual Morales plays in the yard of his off-post home. He is the son of Capt. Kathy Morales, Medical Company commander here. Studies have shown that regular unstructured playtime for youngsters not only lowers stress and behavioral difficulties, but also increase mental acuity. (Contributed Photo) (Photo Credit: CPT Kathy Morales) VIEW ORIGINAL

I have always been tempted to write a prescription that reads “Go out and play” just to see how the parent responds.

Turns out, there is no better time than this – nearly three months into the social distancing, no public gatherings and shelter-at-home requirements to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – to follow that exact recommendation.

As a pediatrician in Kenner Army Health Clinic, I have observed how this situation has not been ideal for people in general. They have been affected physically, emotionally, socially and economically. For children, there is another vulnerable plane, developmentally.

Lately, I have encountered an unusual number of TeleHealth concerns related to emotional, behavioral and developmental regression in youngsters. It is troubling to imagine the coronavirus mutating into a dreadful boogeyman that inflicts children with these mental health issues.

It’s simple to beat the monster, though, with play – which is defined in a 2018 American Academy of Pediatrics article as “an activity that is intrinsically motivated, and entails active engagement and results in joyful discovery.” It is not scripted play therapy, but genuine family activity that brings forth positive emotions while promoting child development and growth.

The Pediatric Journal magazine article further reads, “When play and safe, stable, nurturing relationships are missing in a child’s life, toxic stress can disrupt the development of executive function and the learning of prosocial behavior. In the presence of childhood adversity, play becomes even more important.”

The article points out that age-appropriate play with parents and peers is a “singular opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain … which children need to thrive.”

Research among preschoolers on the first day of school showed a twofold decrease in anxiety – in medical terms, a reduction in the stress hormone salivary cortisol – when randomly assigned to play intervention compared to listening to a teacher reading a story.

Laboratory scientists also have simulated the role of rough–and-tumble play and learned that it can buffer symptoms of anxiety in animals that similarly showed a reduction in stress hormone that could be prolonged by the length and intensity of the activity level. The researchers observed increased brain competency in the subjects, witnessing the ability to solve mazes after two hours compared to the play-deprived group.

With the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, caregivers may want to invest in more meaningful play time with children, and while doing so, may even find themselves unexpectedly rewarded. By recreating their cherished childhood activities or sharing a favorite game with youngsters, some grown-ups may benefit from this renewed joy through a child’s view. This benefit also is supported by a research.

Organized daily playtime at home during this pandemic may seem tiring to already stressed-out parents, but the rewards are worth the investment. Spontaneity is welcomed in this area and may surprisingly bring more fun. Encouraging children to plan the activity is a good tool for self-growth. Parents are not asked to be activity directors. Play should not be a dreaded chore and should never add more stress. And like any medicine, it should not be overdosed – responsible adults have to work and rest, and children need downtimes as well.

With studies consistently showing the superior benefits of real-time social playing among young children, some limited age-appropriate screen time with parents co-watching or co-playing can be an occasional alternative. Play needs adult supervision because it can have a dark side when children are allowed to do as they please, leading to disagreements and even bullying. Homes should always be safe and nurturing – a play hideout from the “coronavirus boogeyman.”

Playing is important for everyone’s well-being, and especially for the development of a young healthy child. While peer-to-peer play is almost impossible due to social distancing, families must strive together, more than ever, to create nurturing physical connections through playtime now; because playing is a medical necessity for children to thrive.