By Dona Matthews
April 4, 2014
Synopsis: Ample time for unstructured play is essential to children becoming confident, intelligent, creative and successful. In particular, outdoor playtime can expand children’s imagination, stimulate all their senses, and free their spirits. Some ideas for parents who want to protect playtime.
If you want your child to grow up to be confident, co-operative, intelligent, creative, and successful, protect his playtime from all the encroachments of life in a fast-paced, ambitious, technologically wired world.
Playtime is one of the most cost-effective investments a parent can make in a child’s education. It requires nothing more than time, space, and imagination. It does require your faith in her inner strength, her capacity to make her own fun; it requires stepping back and letting your child discover who she is, what she enjoys doing, and the ability to pursue her own interests.
While parental support for learning is enormously important to kids’ success, that can be tragically overdone. Instead of being filled with spontaneous improvisation and discovery, children’s time is increasingly being scheduled by adults and gobbled up by electronic devices. By robbing kids of ample time for imagination, exploration, and collaborative invention, we are taking away essential opportunities for them to develop the skills required for real achievement and fulfillment over time.
There’s more and more evidence demonstrating the importance of playtime in kids’ lives. Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison wrote, “Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.” Psychologist Peter Gray wrote, “Play deprivation is bad for children. Among other things, it promotes anxiety, depression, suicide, narcissism, and loss of creativity.” Parenting writer Katie Hurley wrote, “Through play, children learn to master their fears, assert their needs, process and cope with their emotions, and learn to get along with others.”
Although it may look like they’re wasting time, kids involved in imaginative play are discovering what they like doing, what they want to learn more about, and how to interact successfully with others.
Scheduled classes, clubs, and sports activities, and adult-organized outings to museums and performances can be important enrichments, but kids’ lives shouldn’t be so tightly scheduled that there’s no time left for unstructured playtime. Too much focus on enrichment and achievement can actually impede children’s cognitive and emotional development.
And when playtime happens in a natural setting, that’s even better. Kids are calmer, more optimistic, healthier, more creative, and more academically successful when they spend lots of time outside. Outdoor playtime opens up a world of possibilities that can expand the imagination, stimulate all the senses, and free the spirit in ways that indoor activities and screentime can never do.
Andrea Nair wrote recently about ways parents can protect their kids’ playtime. They included:
1.) Let the child choose one or two activities at a time. A child who has lots of interests can choose which one or two he wants to pursue seriously (with scheduled lessons, games, and/or practicing) at a given time—maybe piano and swimming through the winter, and drama and soccer in the summer.
2.) Do other activities casually rather than as scheduled events. If your child has already chosen her one or two activities for the season, but wants to participate in one more, look for informal options. Maybe she can arrange a pick-up soccer game with her friends instead of joining a league.
3.) Stay (mostly) away from screens until the age of four. Most experts agree with the American Pediatric Association’s recommendation that children under two should have NO screen time (mobile devices, computers, TV, video games). Waiting until later for frequent access is even better. It is hard to compete with a flashing, bright screen, and introducing screens too early can kill the desire for free play.
4.) Take your child to different natural environments, without directing the play. Let your child explore new places like a nearby wooded area, a riverbank, a sand pile, a friend’s backyard.
5.) Let your child decide what to play with. It’s great to provide some simple toys—building blocks, pots and pans, paper and crayons—but parents do not need to “entertain” their children. The natural urge to explore kicks in when a child has enough time and space to become curious.
6.) Back up at playgrounds. Make sure the play space is safe for your child, and then back away. Keep your eye on your child, and be available if she needs you, but give her the space to push her own safety boundary. Don’t deprive her of the important learning that happens from making mistakes.
See Andrea Nair’s article HERE.
For more on how and why playtime is so important to healthy long-term development see also:
- Stressed Out in America: 5 Reasons to Let Your Kids Play, by Katie Hurley
- Love, Play, Reflect; Passion, Gratitude, and Grit: Parenting for Success and Happiness across the Lifespan, by Dona Matthews
- Playtime! Possibly the Best Learning of All by Dona Matthews
- How Nature Makes Kids Calmer, Healthier, Smarter by Dr. Laura Markham
- Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills by Alix Spiegel