The Gift of Unstructured Play

The Gift of Unstructured Play

By Stephanie Batty 

I told my kids, “You have two choices: stay inside and clean or go outside and play.” Not surprisingly, my children choose to go outside and play ninety-nine percent of the time, and I love it. Don’t get me wrong, my kids have chores and things they have to do to help at home, but I want them to be kids and play. In today’s world, playtime is shoved under the bed with the dirty laundry. We’ve downgraded playtime because it’s much easier and quieter to hand our kids a device. 

What does unstructured play and playtime mean for a child? Playtime is your time. You make the rules. You choose the consequences. Playtime is your domain. You beg for five more minutes. Adults don’t structure playtime. You play whatever you want. Playtime is freedom. `

Unstructured playtime is important for the physical and cognitive development in the formative years. Through grade school, playtime helps children learn social rules and problem-solving skills. Conflict resolution skills develop as children interact. Without adults to solve their problems, they learn how to handle difficult situations and how to compromise. Playtime is good for the brain, the body, and social skills.

The Impact of Technological Change

Technology has changed drastically in the last few decades, and it’s still changing. It is also changing our parenting and how we define recreation and playtime for children. Technology is amoral, neither bad nor good. It is how we use technology that determines if it is beneficial or detrimental. Handing children a device to “play” is easy and convenient. We can give them headphones to reduce the noise. Peace in the home is easily achieved when everyone is on their own device.

But, this is a false peace. Parents often downplay risks associated with technology. Screen time limits are ignored or never set. Headphones make it harder if not impossible to monitor what children are watching or playing. There are numerous dangers on the internet ranging from mild to life-threatening. It’s more than just predators. Children are more knowledgeable about technology. They can and will find ways to get where they want to go on the internet. Unstructured and disconnected playtime limits the potential exposure to these dangers. Device play does not equal real play, and it cuts into time children could spend in physical play.

Studies show there are serious repercussions when children aren’t given the time for unstructured, outdoor play. Children who spend less time in unstructured play are more likely to develop a mental illness such as anxiety or depression. Obesity is more common.  Children who play less are less creative and have reduced critical thinking skills. Our children need more freedom to play and to be children. However, playtime is also being cut short by things other than technology.

Time to Reprioritize 

Resume building is changing the way children spend their time and the activities in which they are involved. Parents push sports and extracurricular activities to build up their child’s resume for college applications. Academic success is monitored and prioritized at extremely early ages. Parents compare how many letters and numbers their two-year-old knows with other two-year-olds. We force children to learn skills that they aren’t ready for.  By doing this, their development is stunted and any intellectual gains they make disappear in one to three years.  Some studies show that these gains reverse themselves and children pushed academically early on score worse than those who were allowed to just play.

If you want your children to become happy, competent, and well-functioning adults, let them be kids. Let them run and make up games. Let them relive your childhood of riding bikes and begging for five more minutes outside. Don’t push academics or fill their schedules with sports and other structured activities. Limit their screen time. Talk to your children about ways to clear up their schedules. Talking with your children starts a dialog. When you allow real communication to happen between you and your children, you strengthen your relationship and build trust. 

The transition from constant structured activities to unstructured free time can be a difficult one for parents and children. Boredom is a great motivator to get kids doing something though it’s not always the best influence. There will be a transition. Rules, boundaries, and providing things children can play with will ease that transition. Your job is to provide the opportunities and materials to play and then back off. It’ll be hard but you can do it and your children will be better for it.

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