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Unstructured Free Play Important for Kids

Critical to child development says report from American Academy of Pediatrics


Too often these days, parents feel they have no choice but to pack their child's schedules with adult-supervised, adult-driven activities such as organized sports.  

Kids running happily on grassy field

But, as a  report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) makes clear, such activities should not come at the expense of free and unstructured play, which is critical to healthy child development.

The overriding premise of the report is that "play (or some available free time in the case of older children and adolescents) is essential to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth."

Benefits of Play

Why is free, unstructured play so important? There are lots of reasons, says the AAP:

  • Play is important to healthy development of the brain;
  • Undirected play helps children learn how to work collaboratively, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and learn self-advocacy skills;
  • When play is child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover areas of interest on their own, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue;
  • When play is controlled by adults - such as in organized sports - children have to follow to adult rules and concerns (like winning) and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership and group skills.
  • Play offers parents a wonderful opportunity to engage fully with their children;
  • Play and unscheduled time that allows for peer interactions is an important component of social-emotional learning; and
  • Free, child-driven, creative play protects against the effects of pressure and stress.

Editor's Note: Recent research at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago suggests another benefit of free, unstructured play: that children who spend more time in free, unstructured play suffer significantly fewer overuse injuries.

Finding Balance is Key

Since every child is different, the challenge for parents, says the AAP, is to strike a balance that allows their children to reach their potential without pushing them beyond their personal comfort limits, while allowing them personal free playtime. The AAP says parents need to:

  • Feel supported in not passively accepting media and advertising messages that suggest there are more valuable means of promoting success and happiness in children than the tried, trusted and traditional methods of play and family togetherness;
  • Understand that, while they can monitor play for safety (what I call being the "guardian of a child at play"), a large proportion of play should be child-driven rather than adult-directed;
  • Remember that active child-centered play is a time-tested way of producing healthy, fit young bodies.  In fact, a 2010 study recommends "informal physical activity in home or neighborhood settings" as one of the ways for kids to get the 60 minutes of moderate- and vigorous physical activity experts say they need each day (an amount, the same study shows, our kids are not getting solely from participating in organized youth sports). 
  • Recognize that by sharing unscheduled spontaneous time and playing with their children they are being just as supportive, nurturing and productive as by signing them up for more and more sports and other adult-supervised activities;
  • Allow children to explore a variety of interests in a balanced way, without feeling pressured to excel in each area; and
  • Promote balance by resisting the temptation to allow their children to specialize too early - such as in a particular sport or musical instrument - to the detriment of having the opportunity to explore other sports and other areas of interest.

Allow For Free Time

My advice, like that of the AAP, is that simply because our culture seems to increasingly devalue free time doesn't mean you should. Kids need to grow up comfortable with silence. Your intuition tells you how important free time is. It tells you not to interfere with a child's play unless someone is about to or is being hurt.

Have the courage to say no. Be honest with yourself and your children. Instead of feeling guilty and worrying that if you don't do everything possible, don't go the extra mile, your kids will suffer, will be deprived, or will fall behind their peers, understand that sometimes the best thing a parent can do for a child is nothing. Children are not miniature adults - there will be plenty of time for them to be stressed and overworked when they actually are adults.

In short, don't forget to let your child be a child.

Source: Ginsburg KR, Committee on Communications, and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Pediatrics. 2007; 119(1):182-191

Brooke de Lench is the Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins). 

July 2011, Updated and revised April 11, 2014

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