Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

Kiwi kids miss out on vital play time

Lucien Perez, 7, is helping his body and brain to develop as he enjoys some unstructured play time on the swing at Wynyard Quarter in Auckland.  Photo / Sarah Ivey
Lucien Perez, 7, is helping his body and brain to develop as he enjoys some unstructured play time on the swing at Wynyard Quarter in Auckland. Photo / Sarah Ivey

New Zealand children risk weight and brain development issues as a new study shows nearly half of Kiwi kids are not playing every day.

The Milo State of Play report, released today, shows 46 per cent of New Zealand children aged 8 to 12 are not playing every day.

It warns that a generation of Kiwi kids will remember their childhood as one of computer games and other sedentary activities, rather than afternoons spent playing outside with friends.

The report outlines how a lack of play can deprive children of an activity crucial to healthy brain development.

It surveyed 168 children aged 8 to 12, 406 parents and 152 grandparents that see grandchildren in that age group at least once a month.

Play was defined as an unstructured activity outside of school, such as backyard cricket.

More than one in three children said they had no one to play with, one third said they ran out of ideas for play, and parents said children struggled to amuse themselves without electronic devices.

Professor Grant Schofield, director of AUT University's Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition, wrote in a foreword to the report that the findings were "astonishing".

"[Children] need to 'unplug' and venture into the backyard to let their imagination run wild. Let them take some risks. Let them make mistakes. This is how they will learn."

He told the Herald that an over-reliance on structured activities such as sports training or ballet was part of the problem.

Research in Britain showed today's parents spent more time with their kids, but much of that was spent getting to and from organised activities.

Professor Schofield, who has three primary school-aged children, said the same situation applied here.

"It's mostly sitting in cars ... if you drive half an hour somewhere, do half an hour's activity, then drive half an hour back," he said.

"It's just as easy to open the back door, kick them outside, then start chucking a few cricket balls around."

He said other studies showed unstructured play was critical to developing the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that helps people to understand risk and control impulsivity and emotion.

"It's better to learn about risk and consequences and controlling your emotion when you're 8 and up a tree, than when you're 18 behind the wheel of a Subaru, getting chased by the cops."

Almost all adults surveyed in the study said they believed play was essential to a child's development.

Yesterday Megan Paki watched as her boys Lucien, 7, and Raphael Perez, 4, made the most of a children's playground despite the drizzly conditions.

She said it could be a struggle to enforce the right balance between time spent playing and time spent using technology.

"It's not just the TV. It's the phone ... it's computers at home as well.

"The way technology is moving, that's quite a big shift there. So you do have to be a bit more careful," she said.

STATE OF PLAY

* 46 per cent of children aged 8 to 12 not playing every day.
* Sedentary and structured activities such as sports training blamed.
* Unstructured play key to healthy brain development.

- NZ Herald

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