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JAMA Pediatrics Patient Page
February 2016

Supporting Child Play

JAMA Pediatr. 2016;170(2):184. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.2505

Child play is essential to children’s development. Play contributes to brain development and learning, physical development, and social development including language and communication.

Many different types of play benefit children, including playing on their own, playing with other children, and playing with their adult caretakers. When a child plays independently, he or she practices decision-making skills and discovers areas of interest. When children play together, without adults directly involved, they learn to work together, negotiate, and resolve conflicts and they learn self-advocacy skills. When parents observe their children in play or join with them in child-driven play, they get an opportunity to see the world from their child’s point of view. These adult-child interactions help build strong supportive relationships.

Play, including adult-child play, has an important role in children’s language development. The amount and frequency of language spoken to children by adult caregivers during the early years is a key factor in how children’s language develops. Several types of play and activities have been studied to understand in what ways play may contribute to language development:

  • Television exposure has a negative impact on language because this type of activity leads to decreased amount and frequency of language spoken by parents with their kids.

  • Book reading has been shown to have a positive impact on language because this activity increases experience and exposure to language spoken by parents.

  • Toy play: In a study in this month’s JAMA Pediatrics, 2 types of play were tested. The investigators gave one group of parents and their children traditional toys such as puzzles and blocks. They gave the other group of parents and their children electronic toys that produced lights or sounds when used. The researchers found that during play with electronic toys, there was decreased amount and frequency of language used between children and parents. The researchers concluded that play with electronic toys was associated with decreased quantity and quality of language between parent and child compared with play with books or traditional toys.

What Parents Can Do

  • Remember that play has existed for generations and is among the most important “jobs” of children.

  • When purchasing toys for play, traditional nonelectronic toys have the best evidence for supporting language development and creativity.

  • Enjoy playing with your child and feel confident in the importance of playtime.

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The JAMA Pediatrics Patient Page is a public service of JAMA Pediatrics. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your child’s medical condition, JAMA Pediatrics suggests that you consult your child’s physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 312/464-0776.
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