Let Your Children Play!
Parents want to fill their children’s lives with experiences and opportunities that will support healthy development of their physical, emotional, social, and cognitive abilities. For many, this means creating a packed and engaging schedule of learning activities for their children, but this may not always be possible given challenging schedules and daily demands. Wouldn’t it be great if there was something simple that helps kids develop naturally in all those areas? Well, the good news is research shows that unstructured play has the potential to do just that.
What Is Unstructured Play?
Some may call this activity ‘free play’ or ‘child led play,’ but the process is the same: offering children the opportunity to choose their activities and improvise play with limited rules and structure, only supervised by parents or caregivers for safety. Giving children the opportunity to explore their world with curiosity, allows their imagination to take shape and discover ways to create, experiment, and explore in unexpected ways.
What Are the Benefits of Unstructured Play?
Unstructured play can offer children remarkable perks not only during childhood development, but into adulthood, as well. This simple activity that is initiated and led by a young child without a particular agenda can have so much meaning and benefit. Let’s dive in!
When children experience failure, parents may want to intervene and fix the problem for them, but unstructured play pushes us to allow our children to find their own solutions. As they test out ways to work through little mishaps, they build confidence and independence. Developing an ability to cope and manage emotions is a lifelong benefit and a necessary skill for overall health and well-being.
Unstructured play allows children to take the lead in a world that often doesn’t allow them to be in control, as parents or caregivers direct children’s activities and routines. When children engage in unstructured play, they naturally test the limits of their environment and abilities as they learn about the risks around them and make decisions accordingly.
Play time with other children in an unstructured setting allows for social skill building at its finest. Children learn to engage with others, problem solve in a social setting, and practice making decisions that affect others. This develops empathy and increases emotional awareness when learning how to share, take turns, and function in a group. Responding to their peer’s reactions teaches children to regulate their own emotions, as well.
Unstructured play may often push kids to engage in physical activities, such as running outside, playing hide and seek, or going on an outdoor adventure. All of this is possible when adults give children time to play under supervision, but without direction to create an intended outcome. This encourages exercise, develops muscle strength, and trains physical instinct, all while encouraging healthy responses to winning and losing.
Working Through Boredom
Boredom is a good thing! It allows the space for imagination and creativity to form. When we allow our children to experience boredom, we are giving them the opportunity to find their own areas of interest and explore activity preferences. Unstructured play allows our kids to learn to battle boredom by learning how to use this time for their personal interests.
Unstructured play inspires joy, fuels creativity, and fosters positive trait development in children. It is also a great way to take some of the pressure off, realizing that being a good parent does not have to mean filling up our kids’ schedules with educational pastimes. So, let’s give ourselves permission to not schedule our kids for every sport or activity we feel is necessary for their development. A bit of balance is healthy for them, too! Play is their work, and they must have the time to engage in it to further develop and learn. Just in case you need the gentle reminder: you are doing your best, and your best is good! So, when in doubt, encourage free play! (Also, check out these great insights about playtime safety from PM Pediatric Care’s Dr. Christina, here!)
By Andrea DelGiacco MSW/LCSW
Andrea DelGiacco is a clinical social worker and therapist with PM Behavioral Health in Florida. Andrea specializes in Sandplay Therapy, EMDR, TF-CBT, Trauma Response & Crisis Intervention, and her work embodies a strength-based and solution-focused approach to developing effective coping skills.