This article, written by Anna Housley Juster and Saki Iwamoto of Boston Children’s Museum, is reprinted from “The Forum”, the newsletter of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Winter 2016, Volume 17, No. 1.
Public Health Issue
Play supports healthy child-adult connections, social emotional skills, resiliency, and executive function — making it one of the best immunizations we have against toxic stress, anxiety, depression, and the behavioral issues that impede school success (Folkman and Moskowitz, 2000; Pellegrini and Bohn-Gettler, 2013; Zigler, Singer, and Bishop-Josef, 2004). In spite of the empirically proven benefits of play, including school success and stress reduction, many children across income groups in the United States are not currently afforded the time, space, and permission they need to build the foundational skills required to live physically and mentally healthy lives and to reach their fullest potential.
If a child has medical needs, having the time to play and be connected to their communities improves the overall efficacy of the child. Tragically, children with special needs are frequently restricted from participating in many play activities, which further impedes the social engagement they require. It is not just the child that’s affected; it is the entire family that is influenced by these conditions. One of the challenges that many families face is interpersonal stress when they experience awkward moments with strangers (Seligman and Darling, 2009). Given the positive effects of play on young children’s brain development and the negative effects of play deprivation, the rapid decline in access to play is a critical matter of public health.
Recently, the AAP has urged pediatricians nationwide to communicate the importance of play to families (Ginsburg, 2007; Ginsburg and Milteer, 2012). However, doctors and nurses have limited time with patients, and there is a lot to cover during annual well visits. Working together across sectors, we can achieve greater impact through strategic partnerships and shared resources to directly influence children’s access to the benefits of play in everyday life. How?
Focus on Positive Impact
It is widely understood that there are several obstacles to play in young children’s lives today. A recent MCAAP newsletter references substantial increases in screen time as one potential contributing factor to the decline in play (Dietz and Lustig, 2015). Parents are also blamed regarding their decisions about children’s time use. Middle- and upper-income parents are criticized for over-scheduling and over-protecting their children and placing too much pressure on school success (Anderegg, 2003; Elkind, 2001; Luthar, 2003; Warner, 2005). On the other hand, low-income families are encouraged to enroll their children in more academic extra-curricular activities (Dearing et al., 2009; Griffith and Smith, 2005; Guryan, Hurst, and Kearney, 2008; Prins and Willson Toso, 2008). It is increasingly unclear what “good parenting” means. This additional pressure and criticism of parents is not useful and can further contribute to overall family stress. By starting with parents’ strengths and supporting the positive outcomes of play we can avoid blame.
Form Strategic Partnerships to Support Play
Community- or place-based efforts in supporting children’s growth and development are especially important in the earliest learning years (Bruner, 2004). The play experiences that spaces such as children’s museums provide “prompt parents and caregivers to explore, pose questions, make connections, exchange information and ideas, and instill in young children not only a love of learning, but also the skills for learning” (Howard, 2013). Creating an accessible and supportive environment is key to increasing children’s participation in play (King et al., 2003). At Boston Children’s Museum, we take our role in supporting children’s healthy mental and physical development very seriously. We have developed key partnerships to make opportunities for play as accessible as possible for all children and adults within the Museum and in neighborhood-based locations such as doctors’ offices across the state of Massachusetts.
Morningstar Access at Boston Children’s Museum: Mitigating Stress through Special Opportunities for Play
In order to support play opportunities for children with special needs or medical needs and to foster positive social interactions among communities of families, Morningstar Access at Boston Children’s Museum affords regular opportunities for children and adults to visit the Museum outside of normal business hours. Families can play and learn together when the Museum is much quieter and individualized accommodations are provided.
Funded by the Liberty Mutual Foundation, Morningstar Access happens once per month. Please encourage families with special needs to view dates and register through http://www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org/morningstar.
Reach Out and Read…and Play: Opportunities for Playful Learning at Doctors’ Offices
Finding ways to encourage play in children’s everyday lives is critical if we want to affect systemic change. Boston Children’s Museum has collaborated with Reach Out and Read to foster opportunities for children to play and learn in waiting and exam rooms. We have designed and distributed 1,200 posters, including two different activities that can be conversation starters in the context of play, fostering adult-child connection, language skills, and creativity.
One poster provides an I Spy challenge and the other encourages children and adults to imagine their own story. Office staff in more than 300 Massachusetts pediatricians’ offices and health centers will be using these posters to facilitate conversations about the critical importance of play for all children’s healthy development, school success, and stress reduction. These posters also provide patients with information about our many ways to save on Museum admission including our Target $1 Friday Nights (when admission is only $1 per person) and our EBT discount, a $2.00 cash admission per guest for up to four people.
If you do not currently have these posters in your offices, please contact us to learn more. To help spread the word about access to hands-on play please direct families to http://www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org/visit/ways-save.
Conclusion: Given that parents are most directly responsible for decisions regarding their young children’s time outside of school, they can be powerful advocates and affect change when given the right support. Through a collective impact approach across multiple sectors, we can take steps to increase play opportunities for all children regardless of family income.