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Toddlers to tweens: relearning how to play

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Meanwhile, technology and a wide-scale change in toys have shifted what happens when children do engage in leisure activity, in a way many experts say undermines long-term emotional and intellectual abilities. An 8-year-old today, for instance, is more likely to be playing with a toy that has a computer chip, or attending a tightly supervised soccer practice, than making up an imaginary game with friends in the backyard or street.

But play is making a comeback. Bolstered by a growing body of scientific research detailing the cognitive benefits of different types of play, parents such as Taylor are pressuring school administrations to bring back recess and are fighting against a trend to move standardized testing and increased academic instruction to kindergarten.

Public officials are getting in on the effort. First lady Michelle Obama and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, for instance, have made a push for playgrounds nationwide. Local politicians from Baltimore to New York have participated in events such as the Ultimate Block Party – a metropolitan-wide play gathering. Meanwhile, business and corporate groups, worried about a future workforce hampered by a lack of creativity and innovation, support the effort.

"It's at a tipping point," says Susan Mag­samen, the director of Interdisciplinary Part­nerships at the Johns Hopkins Uni­versity School of Medicine Brain Science Insti­tute, who has headed numerous child play efforts. "Parents are really anxious and really overextended. Teachers are feeling that way, too."

So when researchers say and can show that "it's OK to not be so scheduled [and] programmed – that time for a child to daydream is a good thing," Ms. Magsamen says, it confirms what families and educators "already knew, deep down, but didn't have the permission to act upon."

But play, it seems, isn't that simple.

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