Why children need more unstructured play

The nature of an average child’s free time  has changed. For the past 25 years kids have  been spending decreasing amounts of time outdoors. The time that our kids do spend  outdoors is frequently a part of an organized  sports activity. Other activities taking up our children’s time include indoor lessons and organized  events such as music, art and dance lessons. Another big indoor activity, taking up to 7.5 hours a day of our children’s time according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, is electronic entertainment. Of course some of these activities bring joy and fulfillment to our kids, but, in return, time for unstructured play has decreased.

Unstructured play is that set of activities that children create on their own without adult guidance. Children naturally, when left to their own devices, will take initiative and create activities and stories in the world around them. Sometimes, especially with children past the toddler stage, the most creative play takes place outside of direct adult supervision. Unstructured free play can happen in many different environments, however, the outdoors may provide more opportunities for free play due to the many movable parts, such as sticks, dirt, leaves and rocks which lend themselves to exploration and creation.

Some parents find it challenging to provide unstructured play time for their kids.  Letting our kids play without constant supervision, especially outside, can be even more difficult. It  feels hard to balance reasonable concern,  over-vigilance, and the desire to let our kids experience freedom and learn from their own mistakes and experiences.

We worry because we have absorbed the  message that our children need to succeed and be competitive at younger and younger ages. Many parents start thinking about college before their children are even born. We want to give them every advantage and prepare them as early as possible. We worry about missing a crucial developmental window if they aren’t introduced to letters, extra languages, or a sport. We are also  hesitant to send our kids outdoors to play due to many fears. Surveys of parents reveal that we worry about “stranger danger,” crime, traffic,  and even weather.  In fact, violent crimes against children  and traffic related fatalities over all  have actually gone down in recent years (Bureau of Justice, CDC.Gov Traffic Safety Facts). Chronic illness, on the other hand, much related to sedentary indoor lifestyle factors, has increased dramatically. This is despite the high levels of participation in team sports. Encouraging free play, especially the outdoors, may be an antidote to the risks of indoor modern life.

Why might we need to loosen up and get over some of our fears in order to get our kids outdoor unstructured play time?  In the January 2005 Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine , Burdette and Whitaker wrote on the importance of free play. They argue that free play promotes intellectual and cognitive growth, emotional intelligence, and benefits social interactions. They describe how play involves problem solving which is one of the highest executive functions. ” Children plan, organize, sequence, and make decisions,“  they explain. In addition, play requires attention to the game and, especially in the case of very young children, frequent physical activity. Unstructured play  frequently comes from or results in exposure to the outdoors. Surveys of parents and teachers report that children’s focus and attention are improved after outdoor physical activity and free play and some small studies suggest that time spent outdoors improves focus in children with ADHD.

Socialization and emotional intelligence  benefit through shared interactions and physical movement that take place during play. Children must work together to decide  which game to play, what agreeable rules are, and how to manage scenarios that invariably involve their differing perspectives. This “work” builds the social qualities that we all wish for our children: empathy, self-awareness, self-regulation, and flexibility. Emotional development is promoted along with physical health when people spend time moving. In adults and older children physical activity has been well documented to decrease stress, anxiety, and depression, and to improve overall mood. Though the research is sparse in younger children, it seems likely that our youngest children benefit as well. Free play in toddlers and young children most frequently involves spurts of gross motor activity over a period of time with multiple episodes of rest in between. Most children are smiling and laughing when they engage in play, and it is reasonable to assume that their mood is improved during and after play.

So how do you incorporate more free time into your children’s schedule?

1. Consider the number of extra-curricular activities. There is no magic right or wrong number of extras, but if you or your child aren’t taking joy in the activities or if the activities are eating all of your free time, drop one or some.

2. Change your mind set. Successful adults are programmed to be productive. Children are not small adults. Their play is their work and is their productive activity.

3. Let your child go a little outside your comfort zone. Consider that a child taking calculated risks  in natural environments may learn and improve their judgment. There is no teacher greater than experience. Learning how to climb a rock or a tree now might decrease hazardous behavior later in life by teaching limits.

4. Practice letting your child be bored. As you might remember from your childhood, we don’t need to have every moment scheduled, and, in fact, some of the best creativity comes from being bored.

5. Consider neighborhood solutions. Pedestrian/Play Advocacy: Traffic calming measures including speed bumps and traffic roundabouts have shown to decrease pedestrian vehicle accidents.

6. Allay your fears by getting organized. Groups of parents can get together and take turns watching while kids play on the block.

There is no one right way to organize our time, and moderation usually ends up being the best course of action in all things. I hope that unstructured play time, however, continues to gain publicity as an important element of our children’s lives.

Avril Swan is a family physician who blogs at Whole Family Medicine.

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  • Anonymous

    Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau is a great book illustrating the
    benefits and disadvantages of the ‘cultivated’ (structured, organized
    child activities) and those of more natural growth.  Some of the
    advantages of the structured childhood are increased facileness
    interacting with authority figures, better, higher acclimation to the
    realities of hierarchic society/workplace, stronger interview skills and a sense of entitlement.

  • Anna Bergmann

    Unstructured playtime in our neighborhood means instant judgment by other parents. We live in a nearly-no-crime neighborhood, but if kids are out too far from their homes, there may be a phone call. “Did you know your son was over on Blah Blah Street by the creek?”

    It is sad that we have a Nancy Grace culture that makes people afraid of their neighbors and terrified of strangers.

  • Margalit Gur-Arie

    ‘So how do you incorporate more free time into your children’s schedule?”

    Children should not have a schedule.

  • http://twitter.com/DrEdPullen Edward Pullen

    Sound advice.  We need to stop living in fear of our kids getting hurt,  abducted, scarred mentally, etc.  Let them have fun responsibly.  Did our parents always watch us every second?  Not mine and I survived.  I don’t think the world is really a scarier place now, just more media attention to every “good news story.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HR345TNHOCOQCT7ZEDZJJ5PVVQ ragath

    Interesting article, but not “realistic”. Only a parent can decide how much risk they are willing to place their kids in for the sake of “play.” Furthermore, parents face prosecution for activity that authorities might define as careless or negligent – definitions which change with societal perspectives constantly. Further, unstructured play can and in many cases, must happen indoors (dangerous neighborhoods, traffic, crazy neighbors, age of child, societal pressures, etc). I got yelled at by a “concerned know-it-all” at my supermarket cause I let my kids walk a few yards to the gum ball machine while I paid at the cashier. This article was a waste (an so is the time I am taking to respond).  Parents go outside their comfort zones all the time and their kids wind up dead or missing, and that is a fact. I don’t think that the fears are ungrounded. Even if the odds of my kid going missing are low, its not a risk I am willing to take, whatsoever. A mother last week let her kid walk home from day camp in broad daylight in Brooklyn and the child’s body was found 35 miles away. I know she is wishing that she had trusted her gut instinct and not let him go alone.

  • http://www.facebook.com/anna.shchemelinin Anna Shchemelinin

    I agree that today’s children don’t spend enough time playing outdoors. The main reason for this is that parents don’t spend enough time with their children. Usually, only the presence of a parent is needed to provide a safe environment for kids’ play. But, most of the parents don’t have or don’t think that they have a time to go with their kids to play on a playground.
    Many parents believe that their kids get the necessary exercises in schools. But schools are too scary of liability suits and prefer to not allow kids to move than take a risk of somebody’s potential injury. In my kids’ elementary school kids were not allowed to run anytime except of PE lessons. In school of one of my clients jumping jacks(!) are forbidden even during PE after some girl twisted her ankle. Her parents did not bothered to buy for her a proper pair shoes but blamed the schools for the injury. 

  • Anonymous

    Growing up on farms, my husband and I experienced many of the benefits mentioned in the article including many others.  Now it is harder.  But it can still be done.  Some things we have done to get our children and grandchildren, and assorted “adopted” kids involved in nature and creative play:

    1.  We go out and play with them.  The kids didn’t do organized sports thus leaving US–as well as them–time to do other things together.

    2.  We couldn’t afford landscaping and yard services thus providing a double benefit;   first we  dig, rake, plant, design, grow, water, eat!!!  We have something edible in every season and these delectibles draw the kids outdoors every day to “check.”  We scour garage sale  for vases and  plant dozens of flower varieties to pick and give away.  Second, while technically sometimes “unkempt”  our yard does just fine without a ‘gardener”.  A pile of leaves can lay around awhile to jump in and cover up with.  Fallen branches make great hideout walls.  Scrap boards magically turn into treehouses.  I am 66 but I can and often do share the fun.  “Ideas” for making something or solving a problems or puzzles are bragged about over the dinner table.

    3.  If we couldn’t own land to play on,  we tried to buy or rent a house near a natural open area we could utilize for hiking, biking, exploring.  We also opted for “less of a house and more of a yard” when searching for places to live.

    4.  We established a set of shelves for a nature center.  When you come and visit, the currently resident kid will proudly show you the collection.  Anything that is special to the collector is included in assorted bottles, boxes and drawers. 

    5.  We started our kids late in school, teaching then the basics at opportune moments such as times tables while going down the slide, Sundaymondays going up and down one set of stairs and Januaryfebruarys on the other. conversing without pronouns on a hike.  They actually DID verbs and adverbs on the playground and conversed without pronouns on a hike and. . .

    6.  Now we own 81 Acres outside of San Bernardino CA and bring at–risk kids out to “THE FARM”.  It’s actually 1 acre with rather old modular house, flowers, and critter-happy garden –Plus 80 acres of wild playground.  Don’t get me started on THAT. . .

    7.  For us, it was and is basically a continual, daily and hourly choice based on our belief  (and hopefully, knowledge) of what is best for the kids –which then became, in our experience, decades of happiness and joy in our minds and hearts and lives.

  • http://twitter.com/timrgill Tim Gill

    Giving kids the chance to play is everyone’s job, not just the job of parents. Of course, parents are on the front line and have to make the judgement calls. But what about the politicians and media who blame them every time something bad happens. What about the neighbours who call the police when children are playing unsupervised? The neighbourhood rules banning play? The green spaces being stolen for development? The schools cutting recess – and the school boards forcing them to do so? The lawyers who encourage parents to sue if they get a scratch on a playground – and the municipalities who cave into them? We need nothing less than a new vision for a good childhood, and a new movement to achieve it. (Quick plug: I expand on some of this issues on my blog http://www.rethinkingchildhood.com and in my book No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society.)

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