Free and unstructured play is critical to healthy child development, says a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The report was based on the principle that “play (or some available free time in the case of older children and adolescents) is essential to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth.” This is not to say that adult-supervised or adult-driven activities such as organized sports are less significant in the health and well-being of a child, but it needs to be noted that free and unstructured play is equally important.
According to the report, play is important to healthy development of the brain. This is just one of the many reasons cited in the report. If we compare adult driven versus child-driven activities, it becomes much more apparent why unstructured play is so important. When a child participates in an activity such as organized sports, this is adult-driven and requires that the child follows the rules as laid out by the adult. On the positive side, the child often learns the value of team work and fair play. On the downside, the focus is more reflective of the adults concern for winning or losing. This can have dramatic effects on their self-esteem. There is no question that most adult-organized activities provide health benefits from a physical standpoint; cardio, muscle development and overall fitness, but they do not offer the same kind of benefits as free play.
If you have ever watched children at play on a playground, you will begin to understand the importance of free and unstructured play. The child is no longer bound by the rules of organized sports but is free to take on the types of activities that are often more in line with their interests.
They are free to engage socially with other children and practice their decision making skills and exercise their imaginations. They become very creative and learn the importance of peer interaction while at the same time learning to participate in group activities at a pace that is suitable to their abilities. This is often in sharp contrast to organized activities that set goals and impose expectations that are not always attainable.
The intention of this article is certainly not to reduce, criticize or downplay the importance of adult-driven activities, but to point out the need for balance between the two. Both have a large role in defining a child’s future. Lessons learned on a soccer pitch are just as likely to define that child’s future as free play on a playground. Both have long lasting benefits that they will carry into adulthood.
All children progress at different paces, so in order for a child to reach his or her potential without pushing them beyond their comfort zone, is always a difficult challenge for parents. Allowing children to develop at their own pace is something that seems to be overlooked in this fast paced world. Parents, for the most part, are keen to fill a child’s calendar with all kinds of organized activities but too often neglect the child’s need for free time. It is a balancing act for sure, and not always easy, but knowing that it is okay to loosen up the calendar to allow for free unstructured play time, is a great start. While you are at it, why not take some time for yourself and get out there and play with your children. No rules, just lots of fun and laughter. The benefits are amazing!