“Play has become a four-letter word.”

So says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University and one of the authors of a new paper about the importance of play in children’s lives. The clinical report, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommends that pediatricians write a “prescription for play” at doctor visits in the first two years of life. Years of research have shown that play is an important part of a child’s development, assisting in cognition, memory, social skills, and, to a lesser extent, maybe even mental health. Yet, according to the paper, children in the United States play less, and have less free time, than in decades past.

In the United States there has been much cultural focus in recent years on children’s academic skills and preparedness for college and the job market that awaits them as adults. No Child Left Behind, the 2001 act instituted by George W. Bush, encouraged classrooms as early as preschool to focus on structured activities meant to promote academic results—which, according to the report, led to “a corresponding decrease in playful learning.” In 2003, when the Bush administration reauthorized the Head Start program to aid low-income children, it removed a provision for evaluating the social and emotional skills of children who participated relative to their peers. The authors of the report argue that downplaying such nonacademic development could limit children’s attention spans and degrade their behavior in the classroom.

“When children have an opportunity to play, and move, it does enhance their learning and their behavior,” says Pooja Tandon, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital who specializes in play and was not involved in the report. “Some of the emphasis on pre-academic skills or more traditional forms of learning, they have squeezed out play from childhood.”

– Angela Lashbrook

Read More: Playtime May Bolster Kids’ Mental Health

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