When you think of children's toys and how kids play, what do you picture these days? While kids still play with classics like blocks, balls, and puzzles, it seems the definition of play has rapidly changed this past decade. For centuries, toys and games were hands on. Now it's more, "minds on."

In too many cases, play has gone from active and often social, to digital-based, passive, and often solitary. And I'm not the only one who has noticed this shift. A report this month from the American Academy of Pediatrics focusing on the importance of free play said, "immersion in electronic media takes away time from real play, either outdoors or indoors. Real learning happens better in person-to-person exchanges rather than machine-to-person interactions."

There are lots of reasons for this, including:

  • An increased focus on school achievement such as test scores.
  • Children used to have more free time after school. Participation in enrichment activities has grown.
  • There were lots of kids in the neighborhood if you wanted to play.
  • Favorite toys went from Cabbage Patch Kids and Transformers to Nintendo and Xbox.

Now after-school hours are tightly scheduled with extended care, sports, tutoring, or lessons. Most kids live in families with parents working outside the home, so when everyone finally is together, there's little time or desire to get out the paints and make a mural. It's easy to turn to digital devices by the end of the day.

Of course, I don't think parents should abandon digital devices, but we need to remember to make some time for play. Play is much more than just fun and games. "It is brain building. Play has been shown to have both direct and indirect effects on brain structure and functioning," according to the AAP.

It's essential to helping kids grow, explore, and discover their personalities. Through play, they learn to get along with others, sort out conflicts, practice language skills, and develop motor skills. Play encourages independence, self-esteem, and creativity.

Kadedra Allen, mom to 5-year-old Kiley, agrees. She said, "When I finally get home after a long day, there's rarely time to have simple fun with my daughter. Most often our evenings consist of dinner, chores, homework, and bath. Soon after it's bed because we're both exhausted."

But, Allen said, "It's important to create time just to enjoy my daughter. "

"We make slime, build popsicle stick houses, or bake cupcakes. I love to grab a few Barbies because it's really surprising some of the things Kiley says. I become more aware of how she feels and what she understands. Most important, it gives me a chance to create memories, to get to know my child, and to teach her," Allen said.

It's also important for parents and children to find things they all enjoy. Jonathan Ford, dad to a young son and daughter, is a graphic artist, and one of their favorite activities is creating digital stories together. The children develop the plot and he creates the illustrations according to their directions. The end result is less important than the time spent together. There's a digital element to this, but the parent and child are interacting with each other.

The takeaway? I think we all need some more playtime in our lives. The stresses and the struggles get to all of us. It's seems we're always rushing from one place to another. Finishing one chore and going on to the next. Worrying about our kids test scores or if they'll make the first team.

Parents, make time to have fun with your kids and enjoy each other's company! Spending time together builds open communication that can be a lifeline as they grow into adolescence.

Here are some ideas to get you started: