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Unstructured Free Play for Kids: 10 Benefits

Posted by Jerry De Luca on Saturday, November 12, 2016

Since the late 1970’s there has been a dramatic decline in kid’s free play and unstructured outdoor activities. Children have gone from watching too much television to spending several hours per day looking into a computer or smart phone screen. Almost all play is carefully structured.

Peter Gray Ph.D. is a research professor of psychology at Boston College and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. He writes in his monthly column:

“Children love to play in emotionally exciting ways.  Little ones delight in being tossed into the air or swung around by adults or teenagers (but only if the children themselves determine the height of the tosses and the vigor of the swinging). They also love to be chased by a ‘monster.’ Somewhat older children enjoy somersaulting, pirouetting, cartwheeling, and other forms of spinning around; sliding, swinging high, and teeter-tottering on playground equipment; climbing trees or up the sides of buildings; leaping from heights onto water or snowbanks; and zipping around on scooters, bikes, skateboards, skis, and other devices that permit speed. Children of all ages seem to have a sense of their limits in such play. They typically start at low heights or slow speeds and move gradually up. They take risks in moderation. The joy of play combined with a modicum of fear is the exquisite sensation we all identify as thrill.”

There are numerous benefits for kids play in general. Social, emotional, cognitive and physical growth is enhanced. Here are some of the added benefits of unstructured, self-directed play that are not as evident in programmed, structured play:

1. Unstructured play boosts children’s creativity and imagination:

Bright Horizons Family Solutions encourages this type of play:

“Einstein said, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ Imagination is the door to possibilities. It is where creativity, ingenuity, and thinking outside the box begin for child development. Imaginative and pretend play is how children learn about the world. During imaginative play, children manipulate materials, express themselves verbally and non-verbally, plan (intentionally or unintentionally), act, interact, react, and try different roles. Great opportunities for learning are possible when children participate in pretend play with dolls, vehicles, blocks, rocks, cardboard, boxes, or manipulate play dough, create recipes by mixing dirt and water, work with art materials, splash in puddles, or pretend to fly.”

2. Play boosts self-confidence and self-regulation:

Kids learn to become masters of their own destiny without an adult directing, pushing, managing or scheduling. They become more confident when making their own choices in a play setting. Consequences of right or wrong choices are usually immediate. From this children adapt, correct mistakes, are encouraged by right choices, learn, grow.

3. Play forges friendships, strengthens social competence and teaches social skills:

Undirected (which means an adult isn’t there guiding and directing each moment) play allows kids to learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, communicate and develop core social skills they need not only now but for the rest of their lives.

From The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics “Resurrecting Free Play In Young Children”:

“Play provides opportunities for children to learn social interaction, and all parents aspire for their children to be successful in these interactions. This success is a measure of the children’s social well-being and is marked by the ability of children to develop and sustain friendships, to cooperate, to lead, and to follow. Unstructured active play with others, including with parents, siblings, and peers, is a major opportunity to cultivate social skills. This is because all play with others requires solving some form of a social problem, such as deciding what to play, who can play, when to start, when to stop, and the rules of engagement.

“Solving these dilemmas and conflicts that arise in play encourages children to compromise and to cooperate. This process can cultivate a range of social and emotional capabilities such as empathy, flexibility, self-awareness, and self-regulation. Such capabilities, sometimes referred to together as ‘emotional intelligence,’ are essential for successful social interactions in adult life. Emotional intelligence contributes to success in the workplace, and it is the foundation for success in the intimate social relationships, such as between parents, that become the primary models for children’s social development.”  

4. Play helps kids learn to enjoy just being in their own company, entertain themselves and develop identity:  

In our age of mindfulness, what about for kids? Free play gives kids time and opportunity to explore their own thoughts, imagination, wishes, hopes. Personality and character is developed as they began to discover who they are and what their talents are. What they truly enjoy and what they would rather avoid.

5. Play creates joyful memories of childhood:

One prominent free play advocate, Mike Lanza, says it best: “Think about your own 10 best memories of childhood, and chances are most of them involve free play outdoors. How many of them took place with a grown-up around? I remember that when the grown-ups came over, we stopped playing and waited for them to go away. But moms nowadays never go away.”

6. Regular play expands our kids minds and neurological development (free play augments these benefits):

Research associate Jeffrey Goldstein, Ph.D. is on the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Early Childhood Education and the author of Toys, Play and Child Development and Why We Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment. He writes:

“Play increases  brain  development  and  growth,  establishes  new  neural  connections,  and  in  a  sense  makes  the  player  more  intelligent …. Play is more frequent during the   periods   of   most   rapid   brain   growth.  Because  adult  brains  are  also  capable  of learning  and  developing  new  neural  circuits,  adults also continue to play.

“Play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith believes that the human child is born with a huge neuronal over-capacity, which if not used will die. Not only are children developing the neurological foundations that will enable problem solving, language and creativity, they are also learning while they are playing. They are learning how to  relate  to  others,  how  to  calibrate  their muscles  and  bodies  and  how  to  think  in abstract  terms.  Through their play children learn   how   to   learn.   What   is   acquired   through   play   is   not   specific   information but   a   general   mind   set   towards   solving problems   that   includes   both  abstraction and  combinatorial  flexibility  where  children  string  bits  of  behaviour  together  to  form  novel    solutions    to    problems    requiring  the   restructuring   of  thought   or   action….

“A child who is not being stimulated, by being ... played with, and who has few opportunities to  explore  his  or  her  surroundings,  may  fail to link up fully those neural connections and pathways  which  will  be  needed  for  later learning.”

7. Self-directed play builds new competencies, leadership skills, teaches lifelong hobbies, and develops resilience:

“Play is what allows kids to manipulate their environment,” says a report written by Kenneth Ginsburg, M.D. of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “And how you manipulate your environment is about how you begin to take control, how you begin to develop your senses, how you view the world.”

Silicon Valley free play advocate Mike Lanza laments the recent upsurge in suicides among Palo Alto high school students:

“‘It’s been pretty clear to me since I moved here eight years ago that kids are just not happy here,’ Mike says, and ‘the suicides are just the extreme examples of the broader problem.’ He believes ‘the poor quality of children’s lives around here’ stems from their lack of autonomy. Basic developmental psychology posits that if children develop a fundamental sense that they (not their parents) are masters of their own destiny, they will be successful adults, and that without that belief they will flounder: It’s easy to want to rid yourself of a life that doesn’t feel truly your own.”

8.  Boys benefit from free play:

Advocates believe boys “are being deprived of masculine experiences by overprotective moms, who are allowed to dominate passive dads. Central …. is the importance of physical danger: of encouraging boys to take risks and play rough and tumble and get — or inflict — a scrape or two.”

9.   Unstructured play mitigates against anxiety and depression:

“Research suggests that students with controlling ‘helicopter’ parents are less flexible and more vulnerable, anxious and self-conscious, as well as more likely to be medicated for anxiety or depression. Similarly, children whose time is highly structured — crammed with lessons and adult-supervised activities — may have more difficulty developing their own “executive function” capabilities, the ability to devise their own plans and carry them out. Conversely, the more time children spend in free play, the better they develop these capabilities.” 

Some of the emotional-behavioural benefits of normal play, all enhanced with free play, are:

----Play reduces fear, anxiety, stress, irritability
----Creates joy, intimacy, self-esteem and mastery not based on other’s loss of esteem
----Improves emotional flexibility and openness
----Increases calmness, resilience and adaptability and ability to deal with surprise and change
----Play can heal emotional pain

10.   Physical benefits (all enhanced with free play)

----Positive emotions increase the efficiency of immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems
----Decreases stress, fatigue, injury, and depression
----Increases range of motion, agility, coordination, balance, flexibility, and fine and gross motor exploration

REALITY CHECK: Could Your Kids Be ‘Play Deprived’? (from Pediatric Safety)

---- How much are your kids plugged into some kind of a digital device?

---- How often are your kids glued to that TV or clicking that keypad?

---- How much free time do your kids have that is unscheduled, unplanned, unsupervised?

---- How often do your kids go outdoors to just recompress?

---- Do your kids know how to entertain themselves solo an adult, coach, teacher, or you whether it be indoors or out?

---- Do your kids enjoy the great outdoors?

---- How often (if ever) do your kids see you throwing off your shoes and joining in the unplanned, spontaneous fun with them?

---- Do your kids know outdoor age-appropriate games and have the equipment for those activities whether it be hopscotch, jump rope, Red Rover, I Spy, basketball, freeze-tag, kick the can, skateboarding?

---- Do your kids know how to self-entertain and do activities that would nurture their creativity or imagination on a regular basis?

---- Do you set a rule that when friends come to the house a minimum or no plugged-in devices are allowed?

---- Would your kid say that you encourage them to play unstructured?

---- How do you respond when your kids get messy? (Just asking…but remember letting your kids get messy every now and then is actually a great way to teach them that nobody’s perfect, accidents do happen, and teaches them to enjoy themselves and their own company).

Primary Sources

Additional Resources

Photo: http://rockandrollpussycat.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Child-Tunnel.jpg

Jerry De Luca is a Christian freelance writer who loves perusing dozens of interesting and informative publications. When he finds any useful info he summarizes it, taking the main points, and creates a (hopefully) helpful blog post.


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