Technology and social media have had profound effects on our world, but have these advances changed our communities and values, the way we parent our children?

CBS This Morning recently covered a story on the importance of unstructured play.  Dr. Tara Narula reviewed what the American Academy of Pediatrics advises for proper child development and states "play is not frivolous; it is brain building."  Free play and play with traditional toys have both physical and socio-emotional benefits on development including language and math skills, self-regulatory skills, and pro-social behavior. Developmental tools which have aided our socio-emotional development, such as play, are being replaced by technology and have been removed from our school districts so we could produce "more competitive kids."  What happens when achievement takes precedence over the socio-emotional development of our kids, when creative venues are dismissed, when free and unsupervised play, letting one's mind wander are discouraged? Dr. Peter Gray, Professor at Boston College, has argued children playing less has led to an increase in childhood mental disorders including anxiety and depression, as well as a decline in empathy.  Bottom line…the nature of being a child is changing and their development is being negatively affected.

Children develop and learn from a variety of sources; preschool being the first opportunity for most children to interact with their peers without a parent being involved. This period is especially important for the development of both cognitive and socio-emotional skills. "Critical-thinking" and "problem-solving" starts in early childhood development. This could be as simple as playing with blocks, figuring out which shapes and sizes can support additional layers of blocks or finger painting. Experiences from play benefit children in many essential ways.

Sign Up for Berkeley Heights Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

1. Play can foster a sense of independence as a child explores a new environment, create a feeling of competence in mastering new skills as well as the pure basic enjoyment of being a child. Children learn their actions affect their environment; bang a toy drum and it makes a sound, use with play-doh and watch how it can change its shape. "It's where the foundations are laid," according to John Goodwin, head of Lego's charitable foundation.

2. Play has a vital role in the emerging development of social skills. When children engage in "make-pretend" they emulate grown-ups through role-playing, whether it be conversations, "play-house" or "dress-up." Children are on a stage where the only limitation is their imagination.  Here children develop skills of self-control, executive function, in a variety of situations, such as sharing and taking turns. Also, children need to effectively develop self-regulation skills whereby they can self-manage their internal states which is critically important for their social skills development. Behaviors such as self-control and impulse control in regards to others as well as frustration tolerance are necessary for a child's healthy development of a personal sense of control. Children who bite and hit have not mastered this. A child who has a temper tantrum at  2 years of age is very different in their stage of emotional development than a child behaving in the same manner at 8 years of age.

Our society might be changing, but being a child should not. Developmental milestones, such as executive function and self-regulation skills have their roots in good old-fashioned play, not organized activities.

Lisa Smith, M.A. DEVM, Teachers College-Columbia University, is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Union County College and an Educational Consultant. She can be reached at