'Real' Play Is Essential to a Child's Success, Experts Say

In an article titled “The iPad is a Far Bigger Threat to Children Than Anyone Realizes,” psychologist Sue Palmer explains the long-term neurological and biological impacts of repeatedly plugging your toddler in front of an iPad for hours on end:

…real play is a biological necessity. One psychologist told me it was ‘as vital for healthy development as food or sleep’.

If the neural pathways that control social and imaginative responses aren’t developed in early childhood, it’s difficult to revive them later. A whole generation could grow up without the mental ability to create their own fun, devise their own games and enjoy real friendships – all because of endless screen-time.

It’s getting out and about – running, climbing, making dens and so on – that allows little children to gain physical skills. Playing ‘let’s pretend’ is a creative process requiring lots of personal input.

Real play develops initiative, problem-solving skills and many other positive traits, such as a can-do attitude, perseverance and emotional resilience. It’s vital for social skills, too. By playing together, youngsters learn to get along with other people. They discover how others’ minds work, developing empathy. And, as real play is driven by an innate desire to understand how the world works, it provides the foundation for academic learning. Real play is evolution’s way of helping children develop minds of their own – curious, problem- solving, adaptable, human minds.

In other words, all those educational apps your toddler plays with aren’t doing much more than teaching her how to hit buttons. While she might recognize letters and numbers by sight, chances are she still couldn’t apply them out of context. In the meantime, she’ll suffer for what she isn’t learning: how to interact with others, regulate her own emotions, and think creatively.

As psychotherapist Erica Komisar notes in Being There:

The development of right-brain attributes, like the ability to read social cues, relate to others, and develop lasting emotional connections, lays the foundation for later cognitive development; without that foundation a child may not be able to tolerate the frustration and mistakes necessary for effective learning or the resilience to recover from making a mistake. …When parents replace play and personal interaction with screen time …they interfere with the kind of imaginative and creative play that ultimately helps children work through their fears and difficult feelings like anger and frustration.

Career culture has geared the American mindset toward an obsession with achievement at all costs. Academic achievements determine career achievements which, in turn, determine financial achievements, the ultimate litmus test of success. Some are motivated by greed, others by fear, but the result is the same: too much pressure on toddlers to perform beyond their cognitive abilities and against their biological intuition. Children crave play because it is how they learn to interpret the world around them. What’s more, a strong social-emotional foundation leads to better cognitive thinking skills later in life. You’re actually doing more for your preschooler’s future academic success by letting her play now instead of plopping her in front of ABCmouse and marveling at her ability to swipe at a screen.

The only time children should be in front of a tablet is when they are accompanied by an adult to guide and direct them. Research shows that toddlers only learn the concepts being conveyed on a screen when an adult is there to translate and explain. Otherwise, children are nothing more than button-pushing droids who push you aside if you dare to get between them and the tablet they love.