When I was a kid, I would yell “See, ya, Mom!” after lunch, shoot out the back door, then show up at the house for dinner. I rode my bike, joined pickup games of kickball, or pretended to be a cowboy or astronaut in spontaneous fantasy games with neighborhood kids. The key word was spontaneous. Usually there was no plan, nor any activity scheduled, structured or supervised by adults.
Today, both in school and out, kids’ lives are super-organized into official play dates, team practices and after-school enrichment programs. Squadrons of youngsters load into SUVs every afternoon like military personnel for transport to whatever is earmarked for that day on the giant calendar that dominates many a kitchen refrigerator. Is this good for them?
Yes and no. Research into brain development has improved our understanding of how to accelerate learning and other skills, and there’s no reason not to use that knowledge to enrich children’s lives. But taking free, unstructured play out of the equation can shortchange our kids in many ways.
Unfortunately, free play has become increasingly rare in school classrooms, even for young children. As noted in a report from the Alliance for Childhood, learning via play, exploration and imagination in the kindergarten classroom has been minimized in favor of instruction and testing in literacy and math. Teachers also have less freedom than they used to, because today’s standardized lesson plans often don’t allow room to improvise.
Too much structure, too much stress
Today’s intensive learning obligations increase stress in children—and, ironically, block an important avenue to learning to deal with stress: unregimented play. Ageliki Nicolopoulou, a professor of psychology and global studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, points out that regimented learning eliminates “social pretend play,” which is important for developing cognitive skills as well as cooperation, self-regulation and interpersonal understanding.
When adults establish all the rules and structure of an activity, children don’t get the chance to use their own resources to figure out how to play together. Excessive structure can also make them less proactive when it comes to setting goals and assessing the success or failure of their actions. By helping children try out new skills and knowledge, free play also builds on the value of the child’s structured learning.
Moreover, watching fantasy in movies and video games is no replacement for kids coming up with fantasy scenarios on their own. “Children learn to abstract, to try out new roles and possible situations, and to experiment with language and emotions with fantasy play,” writes psychology professor Francis Wardle on the EarlychildhoodNEWS website. “In an ever-more technological society, lots of practice with all forms of abstraction—time, place, amount, symbols, words, and ideas—is essential.”
Unstructured play provides cognitive and social benefits
Here are six important ways that unstructured play benefits children:
1. Self-control. According to a 2009 study in the journal Pediatrics, kids behave better in the classroom when they have the chance to blow off steam on the playground during the day.
2. Language skills. A clear link has been demonstrated between pretend play using symbolism and the development of language skills. An analysis of 46 published studies of the cognitive benefits of play cited on the Parenting Science website found that this type of play improves how children utilize language to process and organize information, as well as how they handle their emotions in social situations. In a study of British children aged 1 to 6, kids who were better at symbolic play (measured by having the children substitute a teddy bear for an absent object) were also better at understanding and expressing language.
3. Cooperation. Engaging in pretend games usually involves a cast of characters who need to work together to keep the story going. These activities also often involve a set of rules that everyone must follow, thus promoting kids’ sense of working together for the common good. The pretend scenarios promote development of a host of social skills, including sharing, turn taking, negotiation and dealing with conflict.
4. Executive functioning. According to research on the daily activities of 6-to-7-year-olds reported in Frontiers of Psychology, more time spent in less structured activities results in better self-directed executive functioning (a process involving the ability to organize thoughts and activities, prioritize tasks, manage time efficiently and make decisions). Pretend play has also been shown to help kids work more independently and better evaluate “what if” situations when facts are missing.
5. Dealing with disturbing issues. Play time can enable kids to explore and better understand complex life polarities such as birth and death, good and evil, and power and powerlessness. This exploration can better equip them to handle a real-life tragedy.
6. Identity and self-esteem. Intense emotions that stay submerged can be brought to the surface during play, which can help kids develop a better sense of who they are and their value to themselves and others.
Of course, appropriate development does not require that a young child’s life be 100% free play—that can result in chaos in addition to stress. Nor should playing opportunities be without boundaries. In urban areas, for example, adult supervision of children’s play is certainly required to ensure safety.
It’s certainly gratifying to know that all those times I pretended that my backyard was the surface of Mars and that the five acres of woods near my house were an undiscovered continent helped my development. I may have thought I was just having fun being a spaceman and an explorer, but I was actually laying the foundation for important real-life skills to come.