We live in a fast-paced world where parents are constantly looking for activities and programs for their kids to learn new skills and get a leg up in life. Between school, after-school, and weekend activities, children these days are going from one event to the next with very little time to simply stop and enjoy being a kid.
Even when school’s out, there isn’t any reprieve from the go-go-go mentality for fear of the dreaded “summer slide.” I work in the summer camp industry and I am always hearing from parents who, when inquiring about our camp, are concerned about trying to fit a session in to their child’s busy summer schedule of soccer camp, SAT prep, and summer reading programs.
The thing is, while all of these activities may be educational and help prepare your child to get into a good school or expand their academic prowess, loading up your child’s schedule with organized activities deprives them of some of the basic skills necessary to develop properly.
In fact, research has found that unstructured playtime is critical to healthy childhood development. To us, as adults, seeing our children make mud pies, play with sticks, or splash in puddles may appear to be fruitless activities, but they’re actually more beneficial than you think.
What is Unstructured Play?
“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,” Dr. Avril Swan, MD.
Why is Unstructured Play important?
According to Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg, play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development.
It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers, Ginsburg adds.
Dr. Ginsburg is just one of the many people who’ve been studying the effects unstructured playtime has on children. While the benefits are evident and numerable, the constant pressure for academic success has forced many parents and educational institutions alike to reassess their policy on free play.
In the book Recess: Its Role in Education and Development, Dr. Anthony Pellegrini notes that in a 1989 survey taken by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that 96% of surveyed school systems had at least 1 recess period. Another survey a decade later found that only 70% of even kindergarten classrooms had a recess period.
“I think a lot of public school systems fail to see the importance of play,” says Amy Parks, assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Georgia. “Right now, play is under-valued and lot of that is because of top-down pressures over standards and testing.”
While there are many benefits to unstructured playtime, it would be a discredit to not say that there are obvious benefits to structured activities as well. Having an instructor, or parent, organize an activity can be a positive influence on your child’s gross and fine motor skills, academic abilities, as well as social and interpersonal skills.
It may be tough, but the key to healthy childhood development is to try and find a balance between the two.
You might be asking yourself, how can I do this? The answer will obviously depend a lot on how old your child is. For toddlers and pre-school aged children, structured time with flash cards or children’s puzzles could be matched with putting your child alone in his room with a box of toys and saying “have fun!”
School aged kids are going to have a lot of structured time built into their day with school and homework. Balancing that by giving him time to pursue his hobbies or hang out with friends could give a good balance.
As for the summer, try and look for activities that incorporate both, like Emagination Computer Camps. Campers there choose three academically stimulating STEM workshops , a recreation workshop, and also get time to just hang out with friends and design their own activities over a two-week session.