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Is Playtime More Important Than School?

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playtimeThe summer months allowed for an abundance of free play but that doesn’t have to end just because school is in session. Recreation is a very important part of every child’s life and needs to be maintained. Don’t let the new demands of a school schedule rob your child of playtime.

It is possible to maintain opportunities for free or structured play within a school schedule. Learning to juggle school, play and sleep for your school-age child can be done and I will tell you how in a minute.

First, let’s talk about why leisure time is a so important to your child’s wellbeing and why it needs to continue despite the structure of a school day.

The importance of active play for children, by themselves or with others, should always be taken seriously. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) “free and unstructured play is healthy and – in fact – essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.”

If your goal is to help your child maximize his potential, then you need to encourage and provide him with numerous exploratory play opportunities. If your child had a job description, playing would be it.

Typically, play is not something you have to teach young children. It comes naturally to most but some can always use a little bit of guidance from parents. Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often need more help learning how to play depending on where they are on the spectrum. The brain of a child with ASD is often wired differently in the social skills/communication skills department. Many children with autism shy away from social interaction, not because they don’t want to play but because they don’t know how to.

Learning to interact socially is a skill that can be acquired but it needs to be taught and can never be practiced too much. Guided and instructional play, whether with parents, therapists or teachers, is important for acquiring social skills that work. And practicing these skills over and over again through free and exploratory play is crucial.

Yes, children do have recess time when at school. Unfortunately, it is often less than adequate. And for a child with autism who thrives on structure, the commotion of unorganized play in a big crowd can make any playground an anxiety-provoking place. With the sensory issues your child may have, the noise and unpredictable activity can easily send her into sensory overload or cause him to shutdown.

So, how does a parent balance the amount of playtime with the demands of a school day?

Here are some ideas that will help you maintain a schedule for your child that allows for ongoing free and exploratory play once school begins:

– Get your child outside after school. Being outside, as opposed to being indoors, places your child in different surroundings that offer unique possibilities for creativity and investigation. Both atmospheres are good for recreation but the outdoors has the added advantage of fresh air – it’s good for the brain. Outdoor exercise and activity is great for the body and combats obesity. The natural wonders of nature are soothing to the soul. The great outdoors will also reduce stress and induce sleep. The benefits are many!

– Set up a home environment that invites play. If possible, transform small areas of your house into easy and safe play stations. Create an area with developmentally appropriate exercise and sports equipment. Consider adding a source of music to encourage creative movement. Arrange an arts and crafts center that is user friendly and easily accessible to your child. You can even try converting a section of the kitchen into a science laboratory.

– Do homework in small chunks. If homework is being assigned to your child, breakdown the time spent on it into very small and doable steps. Two math problems at a time, followed by a period of fun will prevent overload to your child’s brain. It will also address sensory issues and make returning to the task easier with neurons ready to make new connections. A young child’s brain learns best when refreshed and relaxed as this previous post explains Relaxed Kids are Smarter Kids: 5 Tips to Enhance Learning

– Communicate clearly. Always make sure the homework/play schedule is clearly communicated to your child, verbally or visually, before you begin. When your child does not understand what is going to happen it decreases the potential for cooperation. Also, if your child struggles with transition, you may want to use a timer to clearly define and prepare for transition times.

– Mark playtime on your calendar. Always make an effort to ensure that various types of play are included in your child’s daily schedule. Highly structured adult directed playtime needs to be balanced with free and unstructured playtime. Whether your child’s play style is aloof, passive or active, finding opportunities to encourage play with you or typical peers will help foster spontaneous and reciprocal play.

– Don’t forget solitary play. Many children with autism find it easy to be absorbed in a play activity all by them selves. But some don’t and it’s important that your child learn to engage in a variety of self-play endeavors. Choose activities you know your child is interested and have them available for solo playtime. If verbal, ask your child for ideas of what he would like to do when playing by himself. If your child has a passion, focus on it! Discover various ways to explore all the possible aspects her special interest could take shape.

– Limit time spent in front of screen machines. An excess of television, video games and computer, for recreational purposes only, can steal precious opportunities for expanding your child’s cognitive ability through play and exploration. Dependency on screen technologies as a source of recreation needs to be carefully monitored. This does not include the use of assistive or adaptive technologies that have been recommended by speech therapists or teachers. Technology can be very helpful to your child but it’s use needs to be managed well.

– Take an active part. At what point in your life did play fall off your radar screen? Allowing your self to play and have fun with or without your child is great self-care. It’s a quick way to relax, melt away stress and put a smile on your face. It also sends the message to your child that one is never too old to play. Making it part of your daily routine will benefit you and your family in more ways than one.

Play is great medicine for all ages! We all have this medicine available to us whenever we choose. When you engage in fun and laughter with your children and other loved ones, you amplify the effects of this medicine. In return your child may have something fun to share, and the joy and laughter will continue to spiral in our lives and out into the world.

They say ‘all work and no play’, makes us dull. And we all know that, ‘all play and no work’, is not realistic. Staying well-balanced is key, for us and our children. Play is a legitimate need that can make it more pleasurable when it’s time to settle down and focus on the work at hand.

Now go play and have some fun!


To make school a more positive experience for your child click here to learn more about my book,  AUTISM PARENTING: Practical Strategies for a Positive School Experience – Over 300 tips for parents to enhance their child’s school success.

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