Sometimes if you visit our centres, you’ll see the children sitting quietly, perhaps listening to a story or taking turns to guess what another child has brought in for Letter of the Week. At other times, especially when they are outside, it can seem like barely organised chaos with children running in a million different directions, all doing their own thing.
Occasionally, a parents will raise concerns about this free play, especially as the children reach the age where school is fast approaching. They wonder if they should be doing something more “educational”, fearful that their child might be left behind their peers in our highly competitive world.
While they clearly only want what is best for their child, what they don’t realise is that unstructured free play is one of the best educational resources children can get. It’s fantastic that we live in an era when there are so many activities for children to enjoy, and at our own centres they can a range of activities, including dance, language and sports programs, all of which deliver many benefits to active and curious children. However, in the quest to give our children every opportunity, it’s important that we leave plenty of room for them to explore and make their own fun.
This can be creative play, in which they use materials to create art or music; imagination games such as dress-up, cubby house building or role playing; or it can be exploring their environment such as playing in cupboards or outdoors. Unstructured free play can take a variety of forms, and it may or may not involve parents or teachers playing along, but the key is that the activity is child-driven.
It may just look like random play, but it’s an important developmental step. In fact, studies of animals who were denied the opportunity to play when they were young found that they struggled to develop normally, with some unusually fearful or aggressive.
Unstructured play offers a number of benefits for your child including:
- Skill Development: Children develop motor skills as the climb and build things in their imaginative play. They learn how to remember things, such as the rules of the game they’ve devised, they learn how to be flexible as the direction of game play switches along the way and they learn to keep focused on the game.
- Build Confidence: Children figure out how to navigate the world and feel more confident in their ability to make decisions. Sometimes they even role play scary situations (like being chased by baddies) giving them a safe environment to process some of their negative feelings.
- Help Creativity: As the writer GK Chesterton once noted “There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.” Unstructured free play gives children the tools to entertain themselves, as they learn that a pile of blocks can be anything they want it to be or that with the use of their imagination and a towel, they’re a superhero. They’re not always waiting for someone to entertain them, they’re too busy entertaining themselves.
- The Ability to Work in Groups: Without having an adult jump in to sort out every minor interaction, children learn how to work together, negotiate with each other, resolve conflicts and advocate for themselves. It’s not a matter of leaving them to some Lord of the Flies-type survival of the fittest situation, but giving them enough space to sort things out with each other as the first step.
- Develop Interests: Giving them the space to explore and the time to do it at their own pace, allows children to figure out what they like doing best.
With the pace of life moving so fast and the pressure on children to excel, its easy to dismiss unstructured free play as a waste of time, but by letting children play their own way, you’re giving them the skills they need for life.
If you’d like to know more about what we do at Caring 4 Kids’ contact us here (firstname.lastname@example.org)