Making Play a Habit

In September 2018 the American Pediatric Association released a powerful statement about the benefits of childhood play. Far from being a frivolous pastime, it argued, play strengthens children’s ability to learn, focus on goals, and tune out distractions. Pediatricians quickly spoke up, some going so far as suggesting that physicians write official prescriptions for parents to play spontaneously with their kids.

At first blush, this resurgent attention on the value of childhood play looks like just another chapter in a long-standing debate over how parents should spend time with their kids. On one hand, some research suggests that too much formalized parental routine interferes with children’s development. On the other, dozens of behavioral-science-inspired parenting interventions seemingly promote just the opposite of play: curricula, education, and parenting behaviors that are structured, deliberate, proactive, routinized, or habit forming.

So, which strategy is the most beneficial? Spontaneous play, as pediatricians are recommending, or habit, predictability, and routine, as prescribed by other scientists?

Which strategy is the most beneficial? Spontaneous play, as pediatricians are recommending, or habit, predictability, and routine, as prescribed by other scientists?

Maybe these recommendations are not actually at odds. Instead, perhaps they coalesce around a new principle: the “habit of play.” This principle links the benefits of spontaneous play to the behavioral power of routine.

Behavioral insights can have a unique contribution here, offering strategies from the child development community as well as directing parents’ attention to foster good early learning habits, such as reading. This dual approach can support the habit of (frivolous, seemingly spontaneous, novelty fetching) good-old-fashioned play.

How play matters for children

Even though recent parenting hasn’t emphasized play, there’s a rich research history showing a variety of ways, for example, that rough-and-tumble play improves children’s social cognition, social competence, and spatial ability; and that imaginative or pretend play can improve children’s creativity and psychological and moral development.

Play is an important part of positive development during childhood. Image: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

Newer to this literature is the potentially negative impacts of a play-deprived early childhood. Play deprivation can stem from things like lack of or poorly designed physical play areas in, for example, public parks, but it might also be partially due to the science-based drive to convert evidence into more rigid formal practice. Such play-deprivation can contribute to adults who are isolated and lack social connection, and an increased risk of children developing deviant behaviors including crime.

The prevailing non-play way that parents are typically guided

Thanks to an active scientific community of child development experts, parents today have an incredible array of resources, many of which are publicly accessible with little to no financial cost. Whether urged to attend workshops, open their homes to trained coaches, or sign up to receive content on social media, parents receive a friendly selection of strategies through both visual and written content to positively interact with their children in ways research shows will promote their children’s learning. Like most any good program, the content, and how it is to be experienced, is evidence-based.

Yet, simply because programs are easily available doesn’t mean they are easily adopted. Nearly all of these initiatives depend not only on enrolling but also on how much parents show up attentive and receptive, and how parents follow through.

Applications of behavioral science might be contributing to the overemphasis on structure. The good news is behavioral science can also offer insights to support and protect the evolutionary benefits of play.

This commonly results in parenting interventions—even those run through social campaigns—that follow a predesigned, rather formulaic curriculum. These generally have the flavor of mechanical rule-following: “when child does this, you should do that.” Subsequent instructions commonly encourage reinforcement, and parents are directed to “do it again.”

Capitalizing on a few of the field’s underlying tenets, behavioral scientists contribute to these existing interventions by promoting “habit, predictability, and routine”—or the prevailing parenting program motto, learn, practice, repeat! Behavioral science interventions commonly acknowledge that parents have limited attention and mental bandwidth, which sometimes presents challenges to interact optimally with their child. To address this, many interventions aim to nurture high quality parenting habits (e.g., many interventions include reminders and goal setting to encourage quality contact with children). The ostensible tradeoff here is that people prefer novelty over routine. To adopt good habits, parents have to “overcome” their natural desire for novelty. Though the recommended activity may be play-based, approaches that are this directive are many steps removed from the evolutionary and gratifying appeal of free play.

An alternative behavioral insights’ view into childhood play

Whereas applications of behavioral science might be contributing to the overemphasis on structure, the good news is behavioral science can also offer insights to support and protect the evolutionary benefits of play. This balance is innately attractive to parents and rewarding for children. Here are a few things for behavioral scientists to keep in mind when designing parenting interventions:

  • Reset the default. Parents are bombarded with prescriptive messages—from industry, the medical community, and various social outlets—about optimal ways to interact with their children. Amid this barrage of official-sounding advice, the natural joy of being silly can be lost. Light reminders to “be spontaneous” and “be silly” can offer balance and reassurance. Rather than being strategically timed, these messages can be idiosyncratically interspersed in things as varied as early language and development texting curricula, TV or related social media advertising, or surprise inserts in apps or books. Such spontaneity can buffer against parents tuning out a repeated and predictable message.
  • Recast play as beneficial. Lay myths suggest that imaginary or natural parent-and-child play is useless. We know that’s inaccurate. Can we come up with the high school graduation rate of children who engage in imaginary play and convey this to parents? Can parents relearn to see play, let’s say with blocks, as the path to skills more conventionally accepted as fundamental to cooperation, self-control, math, engineering, and science?
  • Rethink how to incorporate play into typical tools in the behavioral scientists’ toolbox. Use commitment devices to preset a time to free play. Encourage parent reflection of favorite (and silly) things to do with their child as a checklist of goals that, like more directed goals such as reading for 20 minutes, also very much count toward quality time.
  • Capitalize on identifying expressions of play as cues to children’s positive development. Expressive metrics as indicators of play are readily accessible to any of us: smiles, giggles, babbling, and howls of joy. Capturing these in concrete ways for parents can help their subsequent association with cues of children’s positive development; and, these natural cues have the added bonus of encouraging parents to embrace and follow their child’s lead and actions.
  • Validate that intuitive play counts as play; it does not have to emerge from science or follow strict protocols to succeed. A child’s imagination is the root and route to play.

Child development science is clear: nourishing children’s positive development encompasses a broad set of factors, from secure and stable home environments to responsive language interactions and reading. Play is free in its broadest sense, from demanding few financial or time resources to liberating parents’ human tendencies to engage in fun. Blending the best interdisciplinary insights, we can come up with a new twist on an old concept; let’s call it the “habit of play,” and perhaps this is what pediatricians, prevention scientists, and child developmentalists can all sign on to.

In the spirit of Alison Gopnik, “The gift of play is the way it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected.”