Allowing your child to experience unstructured, free, playtime, outdoors or in is one of the best things you can do for them. Free play, along with the basic needs of shelter, nutrition, and education is vital to a child’s healthy physical, emotional, social and cognitive development. According to the Pediatric Society, unstructured play is essential for healthy brain development. Kids who are involved in unstructured active free play improve their strength, agility, balance, fine and gross motor skills as well as physical confidence.
What is unstructured free play? It is kids being kids. It’s allowing them to use their own imagination to create activities, on their own terms at their own pace. It’s a time when they can create and explore a world they can master. It allows them to make mistakes, to solve problems and learn a little about themselves. It provides a sense of freedom, control and self-confidence. They will practice adult roles. Sure you can observe and maybe supervise but let them lead the way. Get in there and play with them. Be the dad who wears the crown for the tea party, the mom who helps slay the dragon, or the grandparent who crawls through the tunnel into the fort. But let them make the decisions.
Through unstructured play, alone or with friends, kids will develop many life skills they will use later in life. But in this day of increasing screen time on a variety of portable devices, hectic schedules for working parents, the need to enrol them in structured “camps” during school breaks, the pressure to have them attend academic enrichment classes or the want to have them be the next champion athlete, kids are missing out on just being kids. What exactly might they missing out on? Creative thinking, conflict resolution, decision making, problem solving, negotiation, resilience, and teamwork to name a few. All of these life skills can be developed through playtime for use much later in the classroom, workplace or society.
There are many ways to encourage your child to engage in unstructured playtime. First of all, make time for it. Life is hectic, but making time for healthy development of your child’s brain should be a priority. Get outdoors. There are many opportunities to explore various stimuli outside. When indoors, arrange the furniture to provide play space for activities like crafts or re-arrange it to provide for forts etc. Turn ordinary things like boxes into simple toys. Extra large appliance boxes make great play houses with unlimited play possibilities. Expose kids to many different types of activities outside the home as well. Let them experiment with swimming, skiing, skating, dance, art, music and others when they are young. The experience will prove beneficial when friends invite them to do these things when they are older. They will have the confidence to accept the invitation. Academics, organized sports and free play all are beneficial. Seek balance for your child with all of these and the child will thrive.