The Importance of Play

Association Guest Column: International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA)

By Joe L. Frost and Tom Norquist

Play is recognized as a fundamental right of every child by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. However, this right is currently challenged by a host of forces, leading to the reduction or deletion of outdoor play, recess and physical education for growing numbers of American children. These challenges include the influence of sedentary technology, high-stakes testing, changing family structures, excessive and inconsistent playground safety standards, lawsuits and threats of lawsuits, threats of violence and environmental dangers, and failure of policy makers and other groups to understand the importance of active play for development, learning and health.

The voluminous evidence for free, outdoor play dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, and gained support in hundreds of scholarly research reports throughout the 20th century. Many leading philosophers and educators, including Plato, Aristotle, Quintilian, Luther, Rabelais, Comenius, Locke, Rousseau, Pestallozi, Froebel, Groos, Hall, Spencer, Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner, were as one voice in recognizing and promoting the importance of play and physical activity for health and child development. Their views were echoed throughout the 20th century by growing numbers of research scientists and professional organizations. Indeed, the evidence supporting the benefits of play is perhaps unparalleled in any other dimension of child development research. From a research perspective, the argument is essentially over, yet political priorities, and school, recreation and family practices, are increasingly isolating children from free, spontaneous, creative outdoor play.

Brevity allows only a cursory sampling of the thousands of research reports supporting the importance of children's spontaneous outdoor play. The selection of position papers and research by leading professional organizations and extensive research reviews referenced here set the stage for corrective action and more intensive study and introspection.

The American Academy of Pediatrics concluded in 2006 in a clinical report, "The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds" by K.R. Ginsberg, that play is essential for cognitive, social and emotional development, health and well-being of children. They attribute the reduction of outdoor play and recess to hurried lifestyles, changes in family structure and increased emphasis on academics.

A 2007 Stanford University Prevention Research Center report, "Building 'Generation Play': Addressing the Crisis of Inactivity Among America's Children," noted that inactivity among children may result in this generation being the first in American history to have a shorter life span than their parents. The report cites extensive evidence that science has sufficiently demonstrated the positive effects of physical activity in preventing obesity and promoting health. A fundamental requirement for healthy child development is ensuring that children have regular recess and physical education at school and outdoor play at home.

The AAP analysis of research, among other major investigations, shows that play is important for children's healthy brain development, creativity, exploration, practicing adult roles, developing multiple competencies, handling challenges, working in groups, decision making, developing leadership skills, developing physical skills, and engaging fully and joyfully in childhood imagination and passion. The Stanford study and a 2006 American Heart Association review of physical activity intervention studies ("What We Know and What We Need to Know: A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism" by B.H. Marcus, et al) support the AAP findings and identify other benefits of structured and unstructured play, including the prevention of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, resulting in increased life expectancy. These and other studies support the need to couple physical activity and healthy diets. Obese children and inactive children tend to become obese, inactive adults, so the time to start preventive measures is early.

The research reviews noted here demonstrate that structured and unstructured play also are essential for academic achievement, helping to ensure social, emotional, physical and cognitive development through the development of pre-concepts essential for success in the three R's. Play does not steal from reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, but builds the developmental groundwork for its success. Einstein referred to play as the "highest form of research." This is consistent with research from the New Policy Institute by Cole-Hamilton et al, "The Value of Children's Play and Provision: A Systematic Review of the Literature," showing that unstructured play sharpens exploration, tests boundaries and develops both specific and general mindset toward solving problems. Play serves to support and consolidate learning from academics, and establishes pathways and contexts for friendships and peer networks. Amazingly, this happens in a framework of multiple other developmental benefits noted throughout this article.

Play is not merely important, but is essential for healthy child development. The solutions for the "sedentary generation" are neither complex nor profound.

They include:
  • Substituting active play for sedentary time.
  • Restoring daily 30-minute recess and physical education periods to school days.
  • Providing safe playgrounds and recreational opportunities.
  • Training and providing skilled, supportive play leaders for community parks and neighborhoods.
  • Encouraging parents to be role models.
  • Changing dietary patterns at home and at school.
  • Educating policy makers, recreation and education professionals, and parents about the profound benefits of play.


Dr. Joe Frost is the Parker Centennial Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, and is often called the contemporary father of play advocacy. Frost serves as an advisory board member for IPEMA's Voice of Play Initiative.
Tom Norquist is president of the International Playground Equipment Manufacturer's Association (IPEMA) and senior vice president of Gametime.
For more information on IPEMA, visit

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