“But what are we going to dooooooo??”
I’ve heard Hailey whine this at me plenty of times. She’s like me in that she likes to know what to expect in her schedule. I get it. Most times I have a loose outline of the day to give her, but I’m careful not to fill every hour- sometimes that even means telling her that between 1:00 PM and 4:00 PM is just free play. I’ve read enough research to believe that children need time, a lot of time, to just play and explore. I’ve also seen positive results in my own house when I allow for more unstructured play time for the girls, so since they were babies I’ve tried to be very intentional in trying to create space for it every day.
Unstructured play is a hot topic today, especially with recess disappearing from schools and the rise of so many structured activity options for our kids. But what is it exactly?
Unstructured play can be defined as an activity in which children (or adults!) engage in that is open-ended and has no specific learning objective.
It’s different from recreational soccer, piano lessons, or art class- it’s literally free time to explore, create, and find joy in activities that we love so much we lose all sense of time when we engage in them. Don’t let the “no specific learning objective” part throw you. Though there might not be a specific parent-directed goal in mind, there is so much to gain from unstructured play.
- It allows kids to learn about themselves and make mistakes without feeling any pressure or sense of failure.
- It encourages self-reliance as children are put in charge of their own happiness.
- It develops self-determination, self-esteem, and the ability to self-regulate.
- It teaches kids to make decisions, solve problems, and exert self control.
- It stimulates the senses and evokes a sense of wonder and respect for the world around them.
- It develops imagination and creativity.
- It builds strength, coordination and gives children a chance to be active and fit.
- It is a source of JOY.
All such wonderful life skills, why are children playing less today than they did years ago?
Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (you can read more articles from him here) believes there are several factors, but play has been declining “at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities.”
Many of us are fortunate enough to have exposure to so many wonderful children activities to choose from and since we want to expose our kids to ALL the things, it is exciting! I’ve fallen into the trap of over-scheduling our days before and the result was all of us being a lot grumpier, not more inspired. In past generations, free play was a normal part of the day- a child-led, open-ended activity. Who else remembers being told to run off and just be back before the street lights come on? But today, play has largely become adult-directed and highly structured, which really isn’t “play” at all.
How to Encourage Unstructured Play
Scale back on structured activities. This one has taken real effort for me. We are not doing spring soccer this year and seeing everyone else sign up is giving me FOMO. However, we are already doing tennis and not having soccer filling up an additional two days a week means we’ll be free to explore new playgrounds and lounge around reading more books and most importantly, have time to breathe and enjoy our days.
Go outside. The best way to keep kids from bouncing off the walls is to remove the walls. Kids need to be outside. I need my kids to be outside. For us, outside is a magical place where whining disappears and time passes unnoticed.
Limit screen time. I’ve gone through phases when I’ve relied on TV as cheap babysitting (like when Kaitlyn was born!), but I truly feel limiting screens overall has made the biggest difference in the way my kids handle down time.
Let them create. We keep a “free play” box of odds and ends, like toilet paper rolls, yarn, glue, pine cones, tissue paper, etc. Whenever they start transforming cardboard boxes into sailboats, I love watching them take these random items and turn them into portholes and sails.
Get messy. I’m not going to pretend this one is easy for me, it’s not! I’ve taken many a deep breath while allowing them to “cook” whatever they want in the kitchen or dig through the dirt to find rolly pollys and worms.
Don’t solve their problems. A favorite phrase in our house is “how could you problem solve that?” From not being able to reach something to opening a tricky box, we encourage the girls to brainstorm ideas and figure it out. They’ve sometimes come up with better solutions than I do and I love seeing their sense of pride when they announce “I problem-solved it!”
Let go of some fear. Whether it’s fear of letting them play outside without you or letting them try to climb a play structure on their own, we have to let them stretch their wings as they grow.
Say yes. Want to really see your kids eyes light up? Give them an unexpected YES. It makes my day to see my girls get giddy when I say yes to letting them strip down and play in the rain or any other time when they expect my answer to be a “heck no.”
For more on play for kids, check out the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s page on play.
The importance of play is one of my favorite topics. And it’s not just for kids! Brene Brown touched on how vital play is for our own (adult) happiness in The Power of Vulnerability. It really struck a cord with me. How often do you get caught up in doing something that you lose all sense of time and feel fulfilled and happy when you’re done? For me, at first, it wasn’t often. I learned that play for me is practicing photography, wandering the aisles Barnes and Noble (or Whole Foods), hiking, and experimenting in the kitchen (which is different than rushing to get dinner on the table). Now that I’m learning more about the importance of play for the girls, I’ve tried to implement more play into my own life too.
My hope is that by encouraging unstructured play early on with the girls, that they will learn what naturally brings them joy and fulfills them, and that they will continue to incorporate play into their lives as they grow.
What is play to you?
What activities do you get lost in?
Do you feel your kids get enough unstructured play time?