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Prioritizing Play: How Parents Can Up Their Awareness And Invest in Activities

The following was produced in partnership with our friends at New York Life, who are committed to helping families be happy, successful, and good at life.

Ask a Baby Boomer what extracurricular activity they were into as kids and they’ll probably give you a puzzled look. After-school activities were whatever the neighborhood kids dreamed up that day. The equipment? A bat and a ball — a modest upgrade from the can their parents kicked — bikes, and a special game (Twister anyone?), thrown in for good measure. It was good, clean, free fun for everyone, if you’re to take Grandpa at his word.

These days, having fun looks, well, different. First, there are screens, everywhere. By some estimates, children ages five to 16 now spend six and a half hours a day in front of TVs, tablets, game consoles, computers, and phones. Furthermore, play costs more. Rather than sending the kids to roam free, Mom and Dad spend on average $200 a month per child for extracurricular activities like sports, art classes, field trips, and camps. That amount doesn’t include summer travel plans now on average set you back $1,145 per person, or $4,580 for a family of four.

Is it time to pine over the good old days? Not a chance. Just look to programs that let kids 3D-print their own toys, remote control vehicles that run on renewable energy and can be controlled by hand gestures, and plans for theme parks where each guest receives their own personalized, immersive storyline. Play today is a more individualized, intellectually rigorous, and social pursuit that will teach your kids to better connect to the world and be good at life. With a bit of planning and a dose of inspiration, activities ranging from weekend pastimes to summer trips can be fun, educational, creative, and affordable for all.

Playing With Technology
David Thomas, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver who studies the concept of fun says that “we are going to start finding the fun industries really working hard to differentiate lots of different experiences for lots of different people. That means they are going to get ever more expensive.” One way to keep those costs down is by making smart use of the technologies that bring experiences into our living rooms.

From low-cost 3D printers to “smart toys” that can be calibrated to match kids’ various ages, interests and needs, toys are not passive throwaway items anymore. Not only do high-tech toys, apps, and games that allow kids to build and play together encourage creativity and healthy social skills, but many of them expose kids to the tech and coding skills that will be in high demand long into the future. Furthermore, many of the apps, like MIT’s Scratch program, are free for anyone who already has a computer or tablet and Internet connection.

Of course, there’s a risk that tablets and smart toys can turn your child into a couch potato. The secret, says Laura Richardson, creative director at Austin, Texas-based Argodesign and a consultant in play and toy design, is to think hard about how we’re using these new developments in our play time. “There’s a fine line between being a consumer of technology and being a creator,” she says. “It’s best to understand that new technologies are like paintbrushes. I see them as a tool. They’re just like chalk for play.” In other words, instead of seeing a tablet computer as an alternative to hands-on activities, make these devices part of a broader experience.

For example, Richardson references a child who makes movies on a smartphone, then builds a theater of Lego mini-figures to watch the results. Another child Richardson knows uses Skype to call his grandmother on the computer, then “brings” her into his play tent, so they can engage in long-distance play sessions.

Richardson stresses it’s vital for kids and adults alike to ensure playing and having fun is a regular part of daily life. Doing so, she says, is the best way to prepare for the future. The skills you gain from play are “all about being flexible enough to handle the increasingly rapid pace of change,” she says. “We have to play to create the future,” she concludes. Who’s going to be opposed to homework like that?

Putting Extracurriculars in the Parents’ Hands
Extracurricular activities are vital to help kids to develop the well-rounded set of skills — as well as the sort of passion, ambition and curiosity that can lead them to a more successful and fulfilling future. No wonder that extracurricular participation has repeatedly been linked not just with higher grades and graduation rates, but also with higher accumulated earnings and less risky behavior later in life.

Unfortunately, as schools have faced budget cuts and reforms over the years, activities that aren’t considered integral to academic learning are often the first to go. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1999 and 2010, the percentage of elementary schools nationwide offering theater and dance programs plummeted from 20 percent to between three and four percent. And in 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly half of all U.S. high school students reported no gym classes at all in a given week.  Increasingly, responsibilities for extracurriculars fall on the family — but there’s plenty parents can do to prepare. “A good part of financial planning for fun is teaching your kids the value of fun when they’re little,” says David Thomas, Director of Academic Technology at the University of Colorado Denver. “It’s a social investment in curiosity.” 

One of the first places parents can go to foster this curiosity is to formal after school programs, classes at gyms and play centers, or with individual teachers (think, guitar lessons). The costs at these private institutions, however, fast add up. That’s where hobbies and meet-up groups, abundant in most communities, can come to save the day. “I don’t think in most cities people spend enough time opening their local newspapers and finding local theater or cooking classes or meet-up groups and experiencing all the stuff right out your back door,” says David Thomas at the University of Colorado Denver. “The world is full of resources and lots of people are doing wacky things.” Don’t forget social media either: Searching for local kids activities through parent meet-ups or Facebook groups is one of the best way to expand your activity base, leading to play dates and other quality social encounters.

And don’t forget to tackle activities as a family, such as attending a Zumba class, taking a communal cooking course, or finally trying to build that treehouse in your backyard that you’ve always dreamed about. When you invest time and money to make play a priority, only then can you feel confident to teach your kids (and remind yourself) that there’s a lot of fun to be had in the world. 

This article was produced in partnership with our friends at New York Life, who are committed to helping families be happy, successful, and good at life. Learn more at