The benefits of playtime, particularly unstructured playtime (where kids are free to explore their own interests, make up their own games and rules, you know, just be kids) are well documented. Yet playtime, both at school and at home, is shrinking to an almost negligible level. Shortened school days, impacted curriculum, and increased pressure to perform has all but eliminated recess from many schools, despite its proven ability to help kids refocus and perform better in class. Extra-curricular activities including music and art lessons, sports practice, and tutoring are eating up kids’ after-school play time. And it may be costing you more than you think. From encouraging imaginative thinking to developing crucial social skills, unstructured playtime is critical to your child’s development in countless ways, including:
1.Developing creativity and imagination. Unlike playing a board game or a game of tag, unstructured playtime is creative by definition—kids must use their imaginations to ‘create’ their playtime activity. By specifically NOT providing any direction to their play, parents force children to evaluate their surroundings and decide how to incorporate them into their playtime. We’ve all seen a shoe magically transformed into a telephone, a cardboard box into a rocket ship, cash register, or car for a doll or action figure.
2.Helping kids make sense of the world around them. Role play, or modeling, is an incredibly important developmental stage and kids practice role play during unstructured playtime. Whether acting out family roles and responsibilities or taking a pretend trip to the post office, grocery store, or dentist, kids are working through every day scenarios to help them understand their own role as well as the way the puzzle pieces of their world fit together.
3.Promoting problem solving and strategic thinking. With no directions or instructions to follow, it’s up to the child to work through any issues that come up during unstructured playtime. From building a bridge to incorporating a second stuffed animal into their story line, unstructured play forces kids to think through various scenarios on their own, exercising their problem solving and strategic thinking skills. Learn more about raising a problem solver here.
4.Practicing social skills. One of the biggest laments about lost recess time is the lost opportunity to socialize with peers. Students are expected to sit quietly during class—recess and playtime is their time to talk, share, and play together. And it’s during these times that children begin to learn to compromise, to work together, and to see things from their friends’ points of view.
5.Physical development. Unstructured play is also a great time to develop key physical skills. Whether your kids choose to free dance to music in his or her room, make up an obstacle course in your backyard, or paint a self-portrait, they’ll be developing critical physical skills including fine and gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination, balance, and more.
You can ensure that your child is developing the creativity, problem-solving, social, and physical skills they need by ensuring that they get a meaningful amount of unstructured playtime every day.
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