Power of (Unstructured) Play

What are your memories of playing as a child?

Do you remember how fun it was to play hide and seek, tag, or good guys vs bad guys? How about arguing about rules in kickball, taking turns at jump rope, creating imaginary worlds with dolls, building forts, putting on plays, and dressing-up? You would come home red faced and covered in sweat and dirt. From long summer days to a few precious after-school hours, kid-organized play may have filled much of your free time, but what about your children?

Are their opportunities for play the same as yours were? Most likely not.

"Toys are children's words and play is their language." -Garry Landreth

Structured play involves a set of rules with specific objectives or goals. For example, board games, puzzles, cards, and even outdoor games like tag are all structured activities. Organized sports like soccer, basketball, tennis, etc. are all examples of structured activities.

Generally speaking, when your child is engaging in structured play, he/she is trying to achieve an objective created by someone else; usually an adult. Structured play has important benefits and can teach children important concepts like team work, structure, and rules, but this type of play should not comprise the majority of play time. I'm sure you have heard the term, “over-scheduled child.”

In contrast, unstructured play is open ended with unlimited possibilities. Playing with blocks is a classic unstructured play activity. Other examples include coloring, drawing or painting on blank paper, and playing with playdoh. Running around at the park, playground, or neighborhood is free play.

Children who are engaged in unstructured play are creating their own objectives, daydreaming, fantasizing, and thinking about how to do things in the ways they want. They are creating their own worlds and having a chance to be the master of their environment which, one can imagine, must feel really good since most of the time they are following other people's rules.

The Importance of Letting Children Just Play

  • During free play time, children develop their communication skills.Whether they are playing with a sibling, peer, or parent, or solo play using imagination, children talk and listen while playing.They figure out concepts like teamwork and problem-solving which are all critical skills for school and life.

  • Imaginative play and role-playing are particularly powerful kinds of play that help children deal with stress, anxiety, and fears.Children get a chance to act out the thoughts and feelings they are carrying around inside of them.They learn to deal by slaying the dragon, defeating the monster under the couch, dressing up to go to “work,” or yelling at the baby doll.

  • Play promotes social interaction and social competence.As children play freely with others, they begin to learn how relationships work.They get to practice sharing, compromise, giving, and empathy.The number of friendships and the quality of their friendships will also usually increase as play becomes more prevalent.

How Play Benefits Parents

How do parents benefit from all of this? It can actually be really hard to enjoy it because many parents feel like it’s no fun to play at all. After all, dress-up, dolls, sword fights, and finger painting may not be your cup of tea. First of all, you need to loosen up.

There is always time in the day for play. Just remember that parents who play get big boosts in self-esteem, and most importantly, significant increases in relationship satisfaction. This goes for both playing with their children, and also being playful with other adults; particularly spouses.

Furthermore, when parents or caregivers observe their children playing or join with them in child-driven play, they are given a unique opportunity to see the world from their child’s vantage point as the child navigates a world perfectly created to fit his/her needs.

The interactions that occur through play tell children that parents are fully paying attention to them which helps to build the relationship. Parents who have the opportunity to glimpse into their children's world learn to communicate more effectively with them because they can now understand their kiddo better.

Less verbal kids may be able to express their views, experiences, and even frustrations through play, allowing their parents an opportunity to gain a fuller understanding of their perspective. Put simply, play offers parents the perfect opportunity to engage fully with their children.

Child's Play is a Child's Work

All types of play are important. Structured play like board games with specific rules and directions, team sports, and dance class have their place and provide all kinds of benefits.

However, they should not comprise the majority of a child's free time. Children are being over-scheduled from younger and younger ages, and at the same time, for different reasons, the opportunities to play in an unstructured way have been dwindling over the years. Schools are cutting recess time, parents are being fed a message that they need to involve their children in a wide variety of activities in order for them to excel, and it seems that children are being hurried to adapt into adult roles to prepare for the future.

Children need the opportunity to play, within limits, on their own terms and in their own way. Kids deserve free play time. Play is a child's work, it's important, and it's what makes them feel happy.

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