Kids are going to play. You can buy them the most popular and most expensive toy on the market and they will play with it. You can give them a cardboard box and they will play in it. Maybe you give them some old sheets and pillows? They will play with it.
Play comes naturally for children — it’s how they explore their world.
As parents, we often try to get our children involved in sports, art or music lessons. We want them to have culture and to develop “life skills”. There is nothing wrong with pursuing any of those things, but we might be doing our children a disservice if we don’t ever just let them play.
Playing is learning. Nearly 75% of brain development happens between infancy and age 20. Not only does playing help children attain new skills and develop strong minds and bodies, it encourages cognitive development.
You don’t even have to help them. In fact, you shouldn’t. Sure, you can guide your children to the backyard or to the sandbox. You can give them their toys, but resist trying to involve yourself in their play.
Just let them play! Watch them, of course, but keep your distance. Your children will enjoy playing on their own and you will love watching what they do. While they are having fun, they will be developing their minds and their bodies. They will have no idea they are reaping the many benefits of unstructured play time.
Essential for Learning
According to the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP), unstructured play is essential for learning and mental and physical development. It gives kids a chance to discover and explore their surroundings. They can develop a sense of freedom and self-confidence as they learn on their own. It helps them develop interests and express their creative minds. They might make a mess here and there, but they will also learn how to clean it up.
Science sees play as key to brain development. According to studies, play develops the neuron connections in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This part of the brain is where emotions, problem-solving and planning are executed.
Money and resources are not as important as the opportunity for children to play at an early age. Provide them any safe environment for play and exploration, and they will do the rest. They need to express themselves, create and learn on their own.
Unstructured Play with Play Structure(s)
Oddly enough, one of the better ways to encourage unstructured play is a play structure. That is – a playground, swing set, sand box, or any other “structure” that encourages the use of imagination during playtime. You can always go to the park, but it’s nice to have the park right in your backyard.
Play can be physically demanding. Running, jumping and climbing will help your children develop strength, stamina and fine motor skills. They will develop agility as they navigate through the swings, slides, bridges and climbing ropes.
Use of a play structure is another way children can develop their socialization skills. They have to take turns on the equipment and they will inevitably design games to play which have rules to follow. The lower levels of play structures often have enclosures that can make perfect forts, houses and hideouts.
Climbing the rope or successfully traversing the monkey bars will help your children develop their muscles and athletic skills. They will tire themselves out, yet be unaware of all the physical and cognitive benefits they have received that day.
Unstructured play, whether alone or with friends, will help your children develop some of these positive skills and characteristics:
- Creativity: You’ve seen kids turn sticks into dragons and boxes into spaceships, right? As adults, we just see a stick and a box. Children see a whole new fantasy world and they use whatever their environment provides them to act out what their imaginations have constructed.
- Socialization skills: Your children will develop their socialization skills as they participate in unstructured play with other children. With that comes taking turns, teamwork, cooperation, fairness and conflict resolution. As a parent, you may have to get involved at times, but give them a chance to work things out, as long as it is done fairly.
- Resilience: Sometimes, when you turn on the hose, you end up getting sprayed in the face. If you pick up that cute little fuzzy caterpillar, you may be surprised when it bites you and how much it hurts. Things fall down and break and people aren’t always nice. Unstructured play gives our kids the chance to learn that things don’t always go as planned and that we must persevere to be successful.
You don’t have to cancel piano lessons. And do keep taking them to soccer – team sports provide lifelong lessons, after all. The point is, while it’s understandable for us to want to give our kids as many opportunities as possible, one of the biggest favors we can do for them is to just let them play on their own.
You’ll be surprised at the things they come up with and the things they say while playing. It’s so much fun seeing them discover and experience things for the first time.
So, take a break! Watch them play and learn and grow and reap the incredible benefits of unstructured playtime. Rest assured, you’re giving them exactly what they need.
Jennifer is a freelance writer and healthy living blogger. She loves yoga, cooking, running, Doctor Who, and peanut butter. She writes about mindfulness, parenting, and clean eating with a touch of sass on her blog, Mindfulness Mama. Follow her on twitter @JenniferELandis.
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