Not all playtime is created equal

Sandra Russ and a student observe a child playing.

Sandra Russ and a student observe how a child plays with toys. Photo: David Ahntholz

School’s just about out for summer, and that means plenty of free time. That’s good news for kids, but how much of a good thing is too much?

Case Western Reserve University researchers say that depends more on the type of play than the amount.

"Play helps children learn to use creativity and imagination in their daily lives," says Sandra Russ, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Case Western Reserve. "But we’re finding that some forms of play may be more beneficial than others."

Russ, who is conducting a study at the Children’s Museum of Cleveland, suggests that less-structured activities—those that children choose themselves and that lead to imagined scenarios and storytelling—can help develop problem-solving and coping skills useful later in life.

But not all children choose creative, or active, play.

"Plenty of children opt to watch TV or participate in any number of sedentary activities," says Marjorie Heinzer, Ph.D., associate professor of nursing at Case Western Reserve’s Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing. "This does nothing to combat the growing risk of childhood obesity."

Heinzer is the lead investigator on a study examining the effects of video dance games on elementary students’ exercise habits. Children at Mayfair Elementary School in East Cleveland who are at risk for obesity-related health issues, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, dance to salsa, hip-hop and other beats using Play Station II consoles and dance pads.

The children had improved physical coordination, better focus in the classroom and lower suspension rates than nondancing students.

"Many were so excited about the program that they were going to save their money or ask for the program as a birthday present," Heinzer says.

Yet, while play-based technology can be the spark that gets some children on the road to healthier habits, it can lead to trouble for others, especially older children and teens.

Susan Redline, M.D., M.P.H., a professor at Case Western Reserve’s School of Medicine, recently led a study that found poor sleep quality in teens is linked to high blood pressure.

"Part of the problem is the technological invasion of the bedroom with computers, cell phones and music," Redline says. "There are teens who text message or listen to music all night. This is compounded by early school hours. Adolescents need nine hours of sleep."

But that doesn’t mean computers and iPods should be banned. Much like food choices, Heinzer says, play and entertainment choices are best made with an eye toward moderation and variety.

"It’s about using common sense," she says.