Docs worried about today’s inactive kids

A prescription for playtime is just what the doctor should order, the American Academy of Pediatrics say in a new report.

Yes, you may actually end up clutching a prescription for an hour at the park to play with your kids or some time in the backyard playing Duck Duck Goose.

It’s a reaction to the lack of perceived playtime in and out of schools, and these prescriptions are an attempt to persuade kids and parents to actually take play seriously.

Scott Goldstein, a pediatrician with The Northwestern Children’s Practice in Chicago, says he routinely writes prescriptions for play, especially since more often than not, his patients will tell him that their favorite activities are playing video games or watching YouTube.

“I will write, ‘Play outside at least once a day’ or ‘Every day, use your imagination to build—not your iPad’ or something similar to kids whom I feel really spend too much time inside with screens,” Goldstein says.

Another doctor in his practice writes prescriptions to “Go for a nature walk” or “Eat dinner together as a family at least once a week,” Goldstein says.

“For parents who seem like they just can’t unplug, I will sometimes write, ‘No screens in bedrooms’ or ‘No screens at the table,’ and say, ‘Now it’s been prescribed by a doctor, so it should be easier to do.’”

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that play is a critical part of healthy development, leading to life skills and even helping with language and math, along with physical and social development.

Why play is the thing

Over the past 50 years, free play in the United States declined sharply while mental health problems in children and young adults including anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness and narcissism have increased, according to a 2011 study.

Parents can’t rely on schools to get kids out to play. A study of Los Angeles kindergarten classes found that the students had just 19 minutes per day of free choice; 25 percent of the classrooms had none at all.

Chicago isn’t doing much better.

Chicago Public Schools didn’t have recess for 30 years until they re-implemented it in 2011—and 40 percent of American schools still don’t have recess, according to the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play.

Even with the forced addition of recess in Chicago, many of the schools lacked the space and the equipment for the physical activity, and they’re still in the midst of restoring the outdoor playtime and gym class to some schools.

For example, in the South Loop Elementary School, gym is only offered once a week.

So why is play so often neglected?

Academics, practicing an instrument and running to structured after-school activities all seem to get in the way, says Roshni Ricchetti, who intentinally bought a home in the suburbs with a largebackyard to enable as much outdoor playtime as possible for her three kids.

She’s right. The increased academic pressure leaves 30 percent of kindergartners in the United States without recess, and parents are struggling to keep up with those pressures.

“If more people let their kids run free and had them in fewer activities, I’d probably feel less pressure to make sure my kids can swim, skate and play an instrument,” Ricchetti says.

Still, she tries to provide playtime for her children by signing them up for nature camps and providing them with opportunities to play and be outdoors.

Sometimes, however, there simply isn’t enough time for playing—especially outdoors—and many parents blame school.

Angela Albertson has two kids, ages 7 and 8, and their recess in a western Chicago suburb is 16 minutes. When they come home from school at 3 p.m., they have a snack and do homework, leaving them about 30 minutes to play outside before after-school activities, dinner, bath, reading and bed.

“I don’t think they get enough outdoor playtime during the school day,” Albertson says.

The pediatrician report agrees, saying that the importance of playtime needs to be stressed to educators as well as parents. Increasing homework, test preparation and enrichment activities are chipping away at playtime—and this isn’t a good thing, the report from the AAP says.

It’s one of the main reasons why Jennifer Nuara moved her family of four from Chicago to North Carolina a little more than a year ago.

“We realized that a good four months-plus out of the year, the kids were sitting on the tablets or watching movies or were bored to death on the couch,” Nuara says of her 4- and 7-year-olds.

“We lived in a neighborhood that was very family-friendly with lots of children, but we were the only family that would shovel the sidewalks so our kids could play.”

After noticing that the entire neighborhood went into hibernation until summer, Nuara decided to make the drastic decision to move to a warmer climate, where her kids would spend their daily afternoons outdoors.

“We love the trees, the weather and the ability to be outdoors 12 months a year,” Nuara says.

Still, others have found a way to play right here in Illinois.

Shannon McKenzie has three children, ages 1, 9 and 11, and she outfitted her backyard with a treehouse, zipline and sandbox. She also camps and hikes with them as often as possible.

“They need a lot of movement, activity, exercise, adventure and mess-making, which the outdoors is great at providing,” says McKenzie, an educator, doula and Tinkergarten leader. “I believe that kids not only need the benefit nature provides on their psyche, but that kids who grow up loving the outdoors will become better stewards of the environment.”

No prescription needed.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Chicago Parent. Read the rest of the issue.

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