The political cartoon Doonesbury once ran a strip where two mothers discussed their children’s summer activities. The first rattles off a long list of organizational activities her child did: sports, music, language classes and so on. The second says her child built a tree house and spent the summer just hanging out. The first mother notes that, technically at least, the second mother isn’t guilty of child abuse.
The strip plays with parental involvement in children’s activities: children lead increasingly structured lives. Allowing a child time for free play seems almost irresponsible by today’s standards, as if the mother left her child in a store in Maryland while she went for the breast augmentation surgery Harrisburg, PA is talking about.
Free Time and Unstructured Play
Kids today spend much less time outdoors than their parents did at the same age. Outdoor play tends toward structured sports activities. Even time spent indoors is increasingly supervised and organized, with music classes, art courses, dance and gymnastic lessons. What free time kids do have is often spent with electronic entertainment.
None of these activities, including electronic play, are necessarily bad. Many kids enjoy such activities. But for proper development, children need time for unstructured play. Studies show unstructured play improves a child’s creativity, intellectual growth and problem solving skills. Interacting with peers without adult intervention improves emotional intelligence and social skills. Even conflicts with playmates can prove beneficial, as children learn how to resolve differences on their own.
Obstacles to Free Play
Parents have to overcome a few barriers before they can let children play unsupervised. We’ve been conditioned to believe our role, as parents, is to position children to maximum advantage in a competitive world. We assume because team sports build teamwork skills, our kid will be lost as an adult unless he gets on the best soccer team in the city.
We need to relax a little. If mom chooses to pay for the facial surgery Harrisburg, PA is raving about instead of ice-skating lessons, it’s not the end of the world. Children don’t need an activity for every day of the week.
“Stranger danger” is another roadblock to unstructured play. We assume an unsupervised child will fall victim to tragedy. Visions of pedophiles, fatal car accidents and other violence haunt parents. I don’t want to belittle these concerns; they’re real and terrifying possibilities. But it might not hurt to remember violent crimes against children have actually decreased since the last generation.
Finally, there’s the boredom trap. We act as if a bored child wastes valuable potential and jump in with suggestions for activities instead of allowing the child to be bored. Boredom can be beneficial; it stimulates the creativity needed for free play.
Easing in to Unstructured Play
Unstructured play doesn’t mean unsupervised play, such as taking a child to the park and letting her play on the playground equipment. Or, let the kids play in the yard while you garden.
Don’t panic if they drop out of sight for a few minutes and remember you taught them street smarts so they’d be safe. You can even set up informal parent groups in the neighborhood to track children . . . if you are the one having trouble letting go.