The researchers found that physical activity is only one part of what kids like about playing, and that regimented physical play built around fitness doesn’t satisfy all needs for many kids, or meet their own definition of “play.” “By focusing on the physical activity aspect of play, authorities put aside several aspects of play that are beneficial to young people’s emotional and social health,” said the study’s supervisor, Professor Katherine Frohlich.
The researchers isolated four key elements of play from their interviews with the children.
- Play happens only “as an end in itself.” Children understand play only for fun, not as a means to get physical activity or to improve their social skills.
- Many forms of play the kids preferred were not active, including playing games, reading, or watching movies.
- Children didn’t feel attached to scheduled activities. The study described their feelings as “ambiguous.”
- Risk is a central and pleasurable part of play, and building too much safety into playtime subtracts this important element for many kids.
The study’s abstract concludes that there is “a dissonance between children’s play promoted for physical health and the meaning of play for children as emotionally contingent, intrinsically motivated, and purposeless.” The researchers hope their findings will encourage parents and educators to think about how to better structure playtime.