Play is on the decline in our society and unstructured play is critical to child development. Let’s look at what unstructured play is and why it matters so much.

Benefits of Unstructured Play to Child Development

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Play is on the decline in our society and unstructured play is critical to child development. Let’s look at what unstructured play is and why it matters so much. We must understand it’s importance to run a quality home daycare.

a child on top of the slide getting ready to slide down.

Unstructured play lets kids feel free to explore, discover and create without rules. The reason why this type of play is vital is that its where kids develop teamwork, social skills, taking turns, sharing, listening, and critical decision-making skills.

Benefits of play

Play, outdoors or in, helps the brain develop in a healthy way. It helps children learn to work together, negotiate, resolve conflict and stand up for their own needs. This is a vital skill. When kids are allowed to play without adult leading, they develop their own interests, engage with what they are passionate about, move at their own pace, and learn decision-making skills that are vital to future success.

child sitting on a swing in the back yard

When all activities are controlled by adults, even though they may be fun, children don’t develop creativity, group skills or leadership. Playing with kids gives adults an opportunity to engage in what kids are interested in. It also helps them develop peer interaction.

Unstructured play protects kids against the effects of stress and pressure that can come from adult organized play such as sports.

Since every child is different, it’s important that we balance structured activities with unstructured playtime.

kids doing unstructured play swinging on the swing set

Don’t give in to the media and advertising world and what they have to say about play. It’s okay to monitor children playing without directing their play. Kids will get more moderate and vigorous exercise from informal play.

It’s okay for kids to explore their own interests rather than those of the parents. Allow kids to have free time to develop those interests. Just because our culture seems to devalue free time doesn’t mean it’s not the most important part of our day. Adults need to remember to continue to play as well.

Time to play is increasingly under pressure as parents and policymakers lean on children to perform even as young as preschool. But evidence shows that children score higher on academic and IQ tests if they are allowed more free unstructured play time.

Children who pretend and grown-ups who immerse themselves in the imaginary realms of fiction and drama are considering what would happen if the world were different. They work out the consequences. Preschoolers who pretend more tend to be better at reasoning.

Unstructured play is play that is open-ended with no specific learning objective. Letting kids be kids. It is not led by adults or planned by them. Its totally child-driven.

Offering children sensory items such as this green tea playdough and letting them explore it on their own if they want to is a great example of child-driven play. And if you’re looking for low-maintenance ideas, these mess free activities might fit the bill. You don’t always want a bunch of clean up to do.

There are 6 stages of play and children tend to move through them from infancy until preschool. Each one is valuable and important.

Unoccupied play

Unoccupied play is like a baby sitting in the corner playing with their feet. They are exploring and observing.

Solitary play

Solitary play is when children get so into what they are playing they don’t notice what’s going on around them. It’s independent play and comes around 2-3 years of age. It teaches kids how to be self-sufficient and entertain themselves.

Onlooker play

Onlooker play is when a child watches children play to study what they are doing and learn from it but doesn’t join in.

Parallel play

Parallel play is when a child plays similarly next to another child but not with them. They are learning to mimic each other’s behavior.

Associative play

Associative play looks similar to parallel play but kids interact without coordinating their efforts together.

Cooperative play

And lastly, cooperative play when kids are finally ready to play together. Team and group performances become more fun. Kids have the skills to socialize and interact. They can come up with solutions to problems and communicate well. It usually takes place around school entry age.

In the past, play has been initiated by children and open-ended but today, play is increasingly adult-directed and structured. This is reducing the development of children’s cognitive, social, emotional and even physical growth. It’s a big problem.

Recent research suggests that kids should have twice as much unstructured time as structured time and we aren’t giving them that.

Kids need it to learn self-discipline, aggression control, self-determination, self-esteem and self-regulation. Unstructured play lets kids use boredom to create their own happiness and depend on themselves.

These skills are vital and we need to find a balance for our kids in order for them to succeed. Let’s let them play! If you sit and watch, you’ll be amazed at the structure and development of children’s play. Even very young kids are determined and focused during play.

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