Should I Put My Child On a “Play Diet?”

Should I put my child on a play diet? If you are like most parents, one of the issues you face is finding the best balance between digital play and traditional play for their children. By “digital play,” I am referring to the use of video games, computers, websites like Facebook and YouTube, and mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. These technologies are incredibly powerful, alluring, and invasive. It is not at all unusual to observe a teenager “Facebooking” their friends, listening to music and texting someone else — all at the same time. Because the nature of digital play can be so consuming, many children spend far too much time with digital media.

Awareness of your child’s play time is important in today’s digital world. Not only are children presented with opportunities to engage in the highly stimulating, almost addictive world of video games and Web and mobile technologies, they also tend to be over-scheduled for activities such as sports practices, music lessons, drama clubs, and play dates. Parenting styles run the gamut, from tightly-packing a child’s daily schedules (including the weekends) to providing kids with minimal supervision and structure. The latter approach often allows for unlimited access and opportunity to play with any game or technology that they choose. While both methods facilitate children’s play, a healthier balance that includes parental supervision is necessary.

If your child is consumed by playing video games, surfing the web, or texting and social media, then you might want to consider putting your child on a diet — a Play Diet. A Play Diet is a set of guidelines to help parents moderate their children’s play activities. A Play Diet will help you and your child find the proper proportion of social, physical, artistic, and digital play that best fits their age and interests. A healthy Play Diet is really quite similar to a healthy food diet. The key to good nutrition is not just to take a lot of vitamins or eat lots of vegetables; it is almost universally described as enjoying a balanced variety and moderate amounts of food. Too much of a good thing, a certain food or vitamin, may cause some unanticipated side effects and can even be detrimental to your health. The same principles hold true for a healthy Play Diet. Just like with nutrition, too much of one type of play — even something that is universally considered to be a positive form of play such as artistic play, social play, or physical play — leaves fewer opportunities for other necessary forms of healthy play.

When parents are considering a healthy Play Diet for their child, they need to take into account their child’s developmental age, interests, and access to varieties of play. In general, younger children need to be involved in more creative and unstructured play. As children move forward into the elementary school years, inclusion in rule-based social and physical play becomes more important. High-schoolers tend to gravitate toward more social, digital, and mastery-based play. All of this is not to say that children’s individual interests and personalities should not be accounted for. For example, a child who does not enjoy team sports would still benefit from some engagement in physical play, but might more comfortable doing solitary athletic activities such as walking or weight training. A child who is social by nature may want to master an instrument that is predominantly played with others, by playing in a band. Economic and geographic realities also influence play choices. A parent who simply cannot afford to pay for music lessons might want to encourage their child’s interest in music by listening to music online or joining the school band. A parent whose child loves risky, physically challenging play and lives in a sunny climate might encourage BMX biking or skateboarding, whereas a child in New England might try skiing and snowboarding.

As we gain more understanding of how important play is to a child’s learning process, parents and educators alike are increasingly motivated to provide children with a healthy quality and quantity of play opportunities. Parents frequently report that they find themselves in perpetual arguments with their kids when they attempt to restrict their use of technology. Helping your child to create a healthy Play Diet can aid in minimizing some of these conflicts. Here are some basic strategies to get there:

  • First, get your child to join with you in understanding the importance of a balanced Play Diet. Help them to see how engaging in a broad variety of play activities is actually healthy and fun for them. Keep in mind, your focus is on “healthy fun”; having greater variety and balance in their activities will be something that they actually like.
  • Second, focus on encouraging a wider range of interests while providing high levels of support for alternative types of play. For example, finding an instrument that your child will truly enjoy playing will likely help them in the area of artistic play. Making your house available for sleepovers and play dates enhances opportunities for social play. Taking day trips to a mountain for skiing or a lake for swimming provides more opportunities for physical play. You need to make alternatives to digital play accessible and attractive — just as you would entice your child to eat healthier by offering them a bowl of pre-sliced cantaloupe and apples, or carrots with dip.
  • Third, use your child’s digital play as an opportunity to engage in other forms of play. For example, buy them video games that are multi-player so that playing games becomes a social activity. Insist that some of the video games that are played in your home are Wii, Playstation Move or Xbox Kinect games so that playing them gets your child moving. Encourage the use of technologies that result in creative play such as digital cameras that can generate family photo albums, or photo editing or web design software that helps the child create their own blogs or websites.

There is no doubt that children’s play has changed dramatically since the first video console games were popularized over 25 years ago. As mobile devices become increasingly ubiquitous, there will be almost unlimited opportunities for new forms of digital play. It is not simply old-fashioned to encourage our kids to continue to engage in artistic, unstructured, physical, nature-based, and social play; it is a matter of balance, and a key to the social and emotional health of our children.

To learn more about Play Diets, read Dr. Kulman’s new book, Playing Smarter in a Digital World.

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