Dr. Zorba Paster: Make time for play

September 8, 2018

David Stluka Portrait of Dr. Zorba Paster on Tuesday, January 15, 2013 in Oregon, Wis. (Photo by David Stluka)

I was watching a high school soccer game a few weeks ago. All four of our kids played soccer. It’s a great game with lots of action, lots of fun, lots of sitting and waiting for your child to “kick in” or assist in that goal. The game requires cooperation, physical stamina, communication — all the traits we want our children to possess as adults.

Then I looked over at the adults and, lo and behold — I know you’ll be shocked about this — many of them weren’t watching the game at all. They were stuck on their phones. Looking at the screen. Not paying attention to their kids. They were somewhere else.

This is a societal change, and not a desirable one. It’s a change for the worse that we need to address, with kids and adults both.

A recent paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics hit this issue on the head when it said we should start spending more time playing with our children. We should flip the “off” switch on our phones and the “on” switch for interactive activities, the AAP urged.

A recent story in the Los Angeles Times detailed the AAP report, and I love how writer Melissa Healy began: “Imagine a drug that could enhance a child’s creativity, critical thinking and resilience. Imagine that this drug were simple to make, safe to take, and could be had for free,” Healy wrote.

“The nation’s leading pediatricians say this miracle compound exists. In a new clinical report, they are urging doctors to prescribe it liberally to the children in their care. What is this wonder drug? Play.”

Bingo. The LA Times science writer had it just right. Play is an amazing “wonder drug” and freely available to us — and we don’t do it enough with our kids.

Now, I know you all realize the importance of reading to our chidren. In our office, we’re part of an amazing program run by a nonprofit group called “Reach Out and Read.” You can Google it. We give infants to 5-year-olds books at some of their well-child visits.

Why? To introduce them to books and to reinforce the importance of reading for a child’s development. Reading to them makes them smarter. It’s a fact.

But it appears playing with them also is a critical component of their development that we are not emphasizing enough. Recent national surveys show kids’ playtime has dropped 30 percent in the last decade. That’s a lot. And what accounts for this drop? Electronic addiction.

So, let me make a leap here. We know parents are the most important people in kids’ lives. Good parenting is good mentoring. The “do as I say and not as I do” approach is stupid parenting. If you smoke, then your kids are more likely to smoke. If you’re an alcoholic, your kids are more likely to be an alcoholic.

And if you sit and watch your phone instead of interacting with your children, what message are you sending to them? You get my point.

If you want the best for your kids, you have to interact with them. And we now know that play is part of that interaction. Yes, in an organized children’s soccer game, you’re not playing with your kids but you are paying attention to them. You are showing that you value them more than the silly screen attached to your hand.

But the AAP initiative says we have to go one step further — we have to take the time and energy to get off our butts and playfully interact with our kids.

My spin: The time has come for us to appreciate play for what it is — highly valuable. We don’t know what the future will be like, but we do know it will be different. Playing with your children gives them the tools they’ll need to succeed. Stay well.

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