Play has a crucial role in brain development among children as shown by various researches, supporting intellectual, emotional and social abilities.
By DR JUSTINE ODIONYI
Promotion of physical activity among adults has elicited a lot of attention in the recent past. People are learning the importance of staying active, taking up a sport, walking, jogging or going to the gym. Children on the other hand are expected to naturally not have a challenge with physical activity since in our traditional set-up physical play time was more than enough.The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines physical activity as any body movements produced by skeletal muscles and results in energy expenditure. Physical activity can be achieved through working, doing household chores, engaging in leisure activities and physical play. WHO further explains that it is beyond exercise, which is planned coordinated movements and is a subset of physical activity.
The recommended level of physical activity by the WHO for children between ages of five to 17 years is at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. Most children engage in physical activities through play and sports. Children usually find themselves playing naturally when the environment and setup is conducive.
Play has a crucial role in brain development among children as shown by various researches. Play supports intellectual, emotional and social abilities for children as stated by Dr David Whitebread from Cambridge University in his research on the importance of play. Play enables children to solve problems and conflicts and they learn to share and express themselves. It also promotes self-esteem.
Physical play provides other health benefits too like strengthening muscles, strengthening bones and preventing obesity. Those deprived of play will exhibit deficiency in some of these skills, which will follow them even to adulthood.
There are many factors in Kenya, especially in the urban areas, that have prohibited play among children. Many middle class families live in apartments with limited spaces for children to play. Sometimes due to security reasons, children are forced to stay indoors. Urbanisation has forced many children to be picked very early in the morning for school and endure long commute hours in traffic, thereby denying them an opportunity to play. Despite Kenyan school health policy conforming to the WHO Global School Health Initiative policy which emphasises the role of play and physical activity, some schools lack adequate space for play.
Unfortunately, most Kenyan urban parents have little or no time to play with their children or just to ensure their children’s play time is secured. The parents who are supposed to be the first line of defence to protect play time make it worse by replacing their absence with electronic gadgets which unfortunately take away the most coveted time for physical play replacing it with virtual games which are in themselves passive with negative effects. Internet games are not only appealing but also addictive to children.
What should parents then do to support, promote and protect play time for their children? Parents have a crucial role to ensure play happens and is available for children right from infancy. They need to be deliberate and ensure children get their necessary physical activity through play at home and in school. Parents should be available to play with their children too. It is one of the most effective ways to cultivate and pass the right values to children. During the interactions with children, parents will bond further through reinforced communication as they play together.
Dr Justine Odionyi is the Senior Technical Advisor- Paediatric and Adolescent HIV services/Quality Improvement Lead at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.