The Importance of Unstructured Playtime and How Understanding It Can Help You Better Connect with Your Child

Most adults will agree that kids should spend time playing. But, when you take a moment to actually look at how that “play” is happening, you start to see that there’s a wide range of understanding about what playtime really entails — and why certain types are more beneficial for children than others. While some parents understand “playtime” as any chance for kids to get outside and move, others include activities like organized sports and parent-led games as part of important playtime. Of course, all forms of play are beneficial for children, especially if they’re outdoors and away from screens. But, unstructured play, which means just letting kids explore and imagine on their own, is becoming increasingly scarce — and that can cause big problems for everyone.

More than just recess or being outside, playing can take place anywhere and at anytime. And, when it does, it engages the brain in a unique way, allowing children to follow their own interests and explore their own ideas. When this type of imaginative play takes place, children thrive, developing their social, emotional, and cognitive intelligence, making them more capable and ready to learn, problem-solve, and empathize with others.

Unfortunately, many schools and adults have forgotten (or have been distracted from) the importance of unstructured, imaginative play. Rather than letting kids just “go outside and play”, they’re organized on fields, given rules in the schoolyard, or questioned by parents who need to understand (and see) everything that’s going on. As a result, children are told what their priorities should be from a very young age, taking away their natural inclination to explore and imagine and replacing them with a desire to achieve, compete, and “stay within the lines”.

If there is no measurable outcome of an activity (such as a grade or score), then many adults decrease the value of that activity, which is exactly why unstructured play has gone missing in so many childhoods today.

Of course, there is a measurable outcome for playtime — it just isn’t immediate. Rather than being able to tell immediately if a child has “gained” something valuable from the experience, unstructured playtime compounds over the years, producing children who are confident, kind, creative, and lifelong learners. But, the moment you focus on these benefits as a parent, you start to alter “unstructured” playtime, trying to force a wanted outcome and, therefore, “structuring” playtime in order to be beneficial. 

If, as a parent you can recognize that children don’t just want to have time to play, they need time to play, you can begin adjusting the way you manage your child and their free time. While you can’t necessarily control what happens at school (if your child attend a public or private school), you can always find ways to prioritize play time at home, both after school and on weekends. Not only do children who play on their own tend to actually get more exercise than those involved in organized activities, but they also have the benefit of exercising their minds and imagination. Just as some sports teach children to work together, so does unstructured play — and without the intervention of an adult telling them what to do and how to do it.

In the end, unstructured play time is one of the best ways to help your child learn how to really be human, developing their creativity and teamwork — and that’s something no robot, no matter how advanced, can ever replace.

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