Remember back in the day when children were told to go outside to play (on their own) or sent to the basement to play with all of their toys?
What happened to those days?
These days children often have fully packed schedules when they get home from school and often on weekends as well, although with the current Covid-19 situation the bigger issue is often how much time children are sitting in front of screens (this includes distance learning, video games, Netflix, etc.*NOTE: This article was originally published pre-Covid and updated September 2020).
In some circles, parents whose children are not in a plethora of activities are sometimes viewed as not caring about their child’s future.
I want to share with you why it is important to not over schedule your child and why you should let them engage in unstructured free play activities as much as possible!
What Is Unstructured Play?
It is when a child is given the opportunity to play freely.
The child chooses the activity and/or toys.
An adult is merely there to make sure the child(ren) is playing safely (this is dependent on the age of the child).
This type of play is initiated by the child.
There are usually no rules and often limited organization.
Unstructured play to a child is like downtime is to an adult!
Unstructured Play Encourages:
- stress free environment (except when there are disagreements between children)
- problem solving
- building of self esteem
- social skills (when several children are involved)
Playing to a child is the same as going to work for an adult.
Adults learn new skills every day while at work.
I am a firm believer of incorporating unstructured play time into your child’s day.
The Benefits Of Unstructured Play Activities For Children
Boredom Is A Good Thing
Many parents think that if their child is bored then they are failing as parents.
Head over to Pinterest and you will find 1000’s of boredom busting activities parents can set up for their bored child.
Having a few rainy day activities in your parent toolbox isn’t a bad thing.
Every once in a while there is nothing wrong with suggesting some activities to your child if they are really having a hard time coming up with something.
Keep in mind though that you are not teaching your child any coping skills by always jumping to their rescue.
Think of some toys that your child hasn’t played with in a while.
Suggest some craft ideas. If your child is older encourage them read/write a book.
My children love making their own books and board games!
Boredom Often Inspires The Most Creativity.
Allow your child the chance to figure things out on their own.
Learning is part of growing up and there will be mistakes along the way.
Sometimes The Parent Is More Interested In The Activity Than The Child Is
If your child indicates they are not interested in a particular activity they are enrolled in, then there isn’t much point keeping your child in it.
This is especially true if the parent chose the activity.
We enrolled our children in karate and every Saturday morning was a struggle with tears and tantrums.
I am a firm believer that you can’t just quit something because you don’t like it so we compromised and told them they had to try it for 3 months before quitting.
At the 3 month mark they still did not want to go, so we allowed them to stop (Saturday mornings are much calmer now).
However, if your child has chosen an activity themselves and wants to quit after the first few weeks, encourage them to continue because they may end up liking it.
Give your child a time frame for when the activity can be ended if they really are not interested.
Regardless of who chose the activity, remember that there needs to be time in a child’s day for unstructured play!
Learning Occurs Outdoors As Well
Some structured activities take place outside (e.g baseball, soccer, etc.) however, there are rules a child needs to follow.
Children don’t use their imaginations in the same way they would for outdoor unstructured activities.
Children can explore their environments, learn about nature, build with sticks and rocks, etc., when playing outside.
An outdoor playset is a great way to encourage your child to get outside.
The play possibilities are endless!
Enrolling Your Child In Many Extra Curricular Activities Will Not Make Him Smarter
For some reason this is often why parents say that their child is in involved in many activities.
All parents mean well and want the best for their child(ren); but I am not sure when our society decided that over scheduling children would lead to smarter children.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
There is so much information regarding the importance of unstructured play in a child’s development.
Yet somewhere along the way, we as a society started placing more value on structure and keeping a child busy in order to learn and less on the importance of play.
In August 2017, the toy company Melissa & Doug surveyed parents to see how much they value play and the results are saddening.
You can download the report here.
Free Play Provides Real Life Problem Solving and Conflict Resolution
Problems will arise when children are left to play on their own.
This will be the case for solitary play or if multiple children are playing together.
My children love their play kitchen.
It is one of the best toy investments we have made. However, this one particular toy leads to many problem solving and conflict resolution opportunities.
I still remember when my kids realized that some of the buttons on the kitchen weren’t working (they used to make sounds, but the batteries hadn’t been changed in years) and they wanted them to work again.
My son (5 at the time) figured out that there were probably batteries that had died.
My daughter (7 at the time) then looked around the kitchen for spots where batteries may be located. She found a few places and realized she would need a screwdriver.
She then proceeded to go to the garage to find the correct screwdriver and then began removing the screws (my husband and I were both nearby, but we let her figure everything out on her own).
Unstructured Play Gives Children a Sense of Power/Control
Children often feel powerless in an adult world.
Most decisions are made for them, often whether they like it or not.
Playing freely allows children to make their own rules. It also often leads to an increase in self confidence and self esteem.
Children can be proud of an accomplishment such as building an amazing fort without the help of their parents.
Children, just like adults, like to be in control. However, this is not always possible for children.
Unstructured play is one of the best ways for children to be in control!
Playing Is Learning!
By now you probably know the answer to the question I posed earlier: “what is unstructured play?”
And you will probably have a good idea of the many benefits this type of play provides.
Nowadays children spend more time than ever indoors usually being entertained by electronic devices.
In order to encourage more unstructured play in your house, you can try some of the following suggestions:
♦ Encourage free play
♦ Let your child be bored
♦ Limit time with electronics (TV, tablets, mobile phones, video games, etc.)
♦ Change your mindset around what is good for your child
♦ Enroll your child in extra curricular activities that they express an interest in.
If your children are like mine, they aren’t interested in very many. But that is ok. You are not a bad parent because your child is not in an activity every day of the week.
♦ For children under the age of 8 try to limit extra curricular activities to no more than 2 days per week.
As children get older it is more appropriate for them to be in more activities, assuming that their school work and opportunities for free time does not suffer as a result.
Please share your thoughts in the comments below about unstructured play and children being over scheduled these days!