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Children in Poverty Need Opportunities to Play, Says AAP

The right of every child to play may seem obvious-as integral to childhood as food or sleep. But for the 15 million children living in poverty in the U.S., opportunities to play are limited, and so are the benefits those children could be receiving. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in a follow-up report to its earlier statement on the importance of play for all children, looks at specific concerns affecting children from low-income families. The new report, "The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining a Strong Parent-Child Bond: Focus on Children in Poverty," appears in the January 2012 Pediatrics.

Children benefit from both free and semi-structured play, which contribute to their resilience and creativity as well as helping them to develop physically, intellectually and emotionally. Play also affords families valuable opportunities to bond. But socioeconomic challenges can keep children from enjoying these important benefits for three main reasons:

  • Cuts to recess and other school-based play or creative programs affect schools in lower-income communities disproportionately.
  • In low-income neighborhoods, parks and play spaces may be lacking, and those that do exist often are unsafe due to violence or environmental dangers.
  • Parents who need to focus primarily on their family's day-to-day survival often do not have the time, energy or resources to spend on play.

"For children facing the challenges of poverty, play is such an important tool to help them build the resilience that they need," said lead author Regina Milteer, MD, FAAP. "Using their imaginations, fantasizing, and trying on grown-up roles helps them to take on their fears and create a world they can master."

According to the AAP report, pediatricians can help families, schools and communities to protect places and programs that allow children to play. Recognizing that there is a complex interplay of factors that may limit recreation in some neighborhoods, possible solutions include supervised after-school programs, community-based activities ranging from sports to creative arts, and keeping school facilities open for use by families when they would otherwise be closed.

The report includes many recommendations for pediatricians, including:

  • Educate parents about the importance of free, unstructured play in the normal development of children.
  • Discuss with parents that simple, inexpensive toys such as blocks, balls, jump ropes and buckets are more effective in allowing children to be imaginative and creative than more expensive toys that may be out of reach for many parents. 
  • Remind parents of the benefits of playtime as a way to engage fully with their children.
  • Encourage parents to participate in physical activities with their children that are free or low-cost.
  • Link parents to community resources that can offer opportunities or assistance.


The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 60,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults. For more information, visit www.aap.org.  
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