Glance at a typical family schedule and you would no doubt see that afternoons are jam-packed and many children — even the youngest among them — have full itineraries of structured after-school activities.
In an effort to raise well-rounded and intelligent children, many parents enroll their youngsters in all sorts of extracurricular activities, including sports leagues, travel teams, enrichment clubs, and musical instruction. While these activities benefit kids in myriad ways, it’s also beneficial to let kids be kids and to provide ample time for them to engage in free play.
According to the popular toy and learning company Alex Brands, structured activities can teach children how to follow rules and routines and help them build developmental skills. But free play can improve critical skills as well. One of the biggest benefits to free play is it can foster kids’ creativity and help kids discover their interests on their own. Free play also helps children learn independence and how to keep themselves occupied.
The United Nations recognizes free play as a basic right of every child and underscores its importance. Despite this, unstructured play seems to be on the decline, with more structured activities taking over young children’s days.
Even in school settings free play has given way to more time spent at desks and devices in preparation for standardized testing. Recess, which has been cut or reduced in many school districts, has become a hot-button issue for many free play advocates. The development of Recess for All Florida Students, as well as proposed legislation in other states, has redirected attention to free play and the importance of it. Recess is a form of free play and provides students with a break from the rigors of learning.
In a 2011 article in the American Journal of Play, Peter Gray, Ph.D., a researcher at Boston College, indicated that “lack of play affects emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self-control.” Gray also indicated that without play, “young people fail to acquire the social and emotional skills necessary for healthy psychological development.”
Free play also can benefit youngsters in the following ways:
• Enables kids to learn dexterity and improve on other strengths;
• fulfills exercise requirements for growing kids;
• helps kids conquer fears and develop confidence;
• establishes natural leadership roles and hierarchy in social groups;
• contributes to emotional well-being by giving children a respite from schedules; and
• helps teach self-responsibility, which may translate to better behavior at home and in school.
Free play is an important component of learning and exploration for children. A mix of structured and unstructured activities is key to raising well-rounded individuals.