What is the Balanced Play Diet?
Moderation in everything might sound like a boring old mantra and something that your parents used to say, but in the same way that nutrition is about balancing the food groups, a healthy, balanced play diet is about balancing different types of play activities.
The Balanced Play Diet is a practical approach that parents can use to help guide the activities that they encourage their children to do, and can help them resist the pester power that parents tell us they find so difficult to handle.
The importance of balanced play for healthy minds and bodies
Every parent wants their children to be happy. But it can be a challenge when you’re busy juggling school, after-school clubs, work, and more. The balanced play pyramid offers a simple solution to help your child succeed in school, make friends, and be fit and healthy.
What does your children’s play “diet” look like right now?
On a sheet of paper, draw a circle. Then add the following activities to create a pie chart that shows the proportion of time your child spends on each one in their free time, during a typical week.
- Active, imaginative, free play (e.g. at the playground)
- Team games (e.g. sports)
- Board and card games
- Construction (e.g. LEGO)
- Creative play (e.g. art, music)
- Educational play (including digital)
- Quiet or solitary play (e.g. puzzles)
- Passive screen time (e.g. TV, video games)
If you find that “passive screen time” takes up a huge chunk of your pie chart, you’re not alone. Research shows that children can spend over three hours a day watching video content across video-sharing platforms, live streaming, TV, and on-demand.
You might also find that your children aren’t doing some of the activities on that list at all. This may mean that they’re missing out on opportunities to learn and grow. Play is like food for a child’s brain – they need a varied play “diet” to feed their mind.
Five benefits of a balanced approach to play
- Manage your children’s screen time. You wouldn’t want your children filling up on junk food and then having no room left for fruit and veg. In a similar way, filling their time up with lots of different types of play can help to reduce the time children spend staring at a screen.
- Improve your children’s performance in school. Play develops all sorts of skills that are important for being a motivated learner. For example, puzzles can help improve concentration, creative play can support divergent thinking, and construction encourages independent problem solving.
- Boost your children’s confidence. By trying out lots of different activities, your children have the chance to master a variety of skills. This can be a great way for your children to build their resilience and become confident at tackling new challenges.
- Help your children make friends. Playing with a range of playmates – friends, siblings, parents, grandparents – is a great way for children to develop the social skills needed to build good friendships. Team games are ideal for learning how to work together, while board and card games can help children learn how to manage their emotions and negotiate.
- Give your children more energy and focus. Active, imaginative, free play is like the superfood of the balanced play pyramid, so it’s difficult to get too much of. It gives children a chance to blow off some steam and get plenty of exercise.
Dr Amanda Gummer also believes that play is the answer to good mental health and wellbeing.
“If you play, especially from an early age, and follow a balanced play approach this can help you to develop a wide range of skills. All of which are crucial in contributing to positive, mental health,”
“It is important to play and develop these skills early on because as you grow up, these skills will become more sophisticated and enhanced to the point where they act as a buffer later on in life during times of stress and difficulty. “
How to get a balanced approach to play
Essentially, it’s about getting a balance of play, not how many minutes or hours children are actually doing. It’s the type of play and the share of leisure time it takes up that is more important. You can include after-school clubs and school break-times in this too, as well as evening and weekends.
A useful guide to follow is the balanced play pyramid, developed by Dr Amanda Gummer. Using this, your children get plenty of active, imaginative, free play; and can enjoy passive screen time in moderation.
One of the simplest ways to encourage balanced play is by making sure your children have a good variety of toys, apps, and games available to them. Take a look at what you have at the moment and see if there are any gaps. You can use this to help guide family and friends when choosing birthday and Christmas presents, so your children can get a wide selection that meets their needs.
Children don’t need lots of toys, just a few carefully selected ones. It can help to do your research before buying toys, apps, or games for children to make sure they’re going to get maximum benefit from it. The Good Toy Guide is a useful resource for this, simply use the “By Type” filter to find what you need.
By developing a balanced approach to play and creating healthy habits as the norm, you are able to treat your children occasionally and not feel bad at times when they have more screen time than intended. Of course, allowing children to sit in front of the computer or TV for hours on end isn’t healthy but the benefits of giving the children some down time in front of the TV, where they’re not making a mess, and give a harangued parent a few minutes to regroup far outweighs any negative effects the TV has.
Here are a few final tips for balancing your children’s playtime:
- Balance inside and outside activity, and choose toys that can be used indoors for active play even when the children can’t go outdoors
- Mix and match playmates so your children can benefit from playing with older children, younger children, and adults
- Playing is great for parents too and gives the whole family a chance to laugh, relax, and build relationships together
- Avoid forbidding screen time or tech play; engage with it but try not to use it as a baby-sitter
- Remember that not all screen time is passive – there are lots of games and apps that allow children to chat with friends, be creative, solve puzzles, learn dance routines, and more – these all count towards the other sections of the play pyramid