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October 1, 2020
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Doing Nothing: The importance of giving children unstructured time for play

One of the stereotypes of the typical Asian parent is having a child’s day completely mapped out with every second accounted for. This block of time is for piano practice, that block of time is for practicing chess and that other one is for doing extra-curricular math homework, etc. There is an increasing push to see children — even pre-kindergarten kids — perform well on standardized tests.

However, it is also important to give your kids the freedom to spend time without a schedule and even get bored so they are able to use their imaginations to entertain themselves.

Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California Berkeley and author of The Scientist in the Crib, and The Philosophical Baby says unstructured play is important for helping children develop the ability to deal with unexpected situations.

She points out that play is common in many species and fits five basic criteria:

  • It is not work and has no end goal.
  • It has characteristics that distinguish it from goal-oriented activities like work.
  • It is fun (even for animals).
  • It is voluntary.
  • It has a pattern of repetition and variation.

Studies with rats have shown that rats that are not given the opportunity to play when they are young have difficulty performing everyday tasks when they’re older because their brains have more difficulty dealing with unexpected circumstances and they are not as adaptable as rats that were allowed to play.

This has proven true even in robots, with Gopnik pointing to research done by Hod Lipson at Cornell University where he allowed his robots to “play,” here meaning trying out various movements they could do without any programming telling them what moves to execute.

Robots that were allowed to play could more easily adapt to unexpected situations, like still being able to walk after having a limb removed, because they had already previously explored their full range of motion during play.

Similarly in humans, preschool children who pretended were found to be better at “counterfactual” reasoning, which is figuring out what could have happened, but didn’t. This gives them an advantage in being able to deal with unexpected circumstances that pop up throughout their lives.

Play is also important for children’s activity levels, especially in a world where more and more kids are starting to become obese. Running, jumping and cavorting help kids to be active and avoid being stationary, which many educational activities require.

And it’s not just physical activity that unstructured play promotes. It also exercises children’s minds and expands their creativity. It teaches kids how to work together, but also how to be alone.

Unstructured play might also help with maturity. In the aforementioned study with rats, rats that were allowed time to play were found to have more developed brains during puberty than rats that were not allowed to play.

Play also helps children to interact with others by teaching them to cooperate and adapt to different situations while also working through problems in groups, resolving conflicts and socializing.

Decline in unstructured playtime

But, even as the benefits of natural, imagination-driven play are increasingly being recognized, playtime is actually under threat.

In the United States, where people proudly declare themselves workaholics like it’s an achievement, recess in elementary schools has been on a steady decline for decades. Ninety-six percent of elementary schools had at least one recess period in 1989 in the States, but by 1999 that number had dropped to 70%, including kindergarten classrooms.

Rather, instead of completely unstructured play, playtime has been replaced by activities that are highly structured like playdates and various enrichment classes.

The reason is because parents want to give their children the best possible shot at success in life, so they try to aid their children’s development as much as possible.

Many parents see play as frivolous in an increasingly competitive world, not realizing that it is a crucial component to their child’s overall development.

The good news is that the trend is starting to reverse, with a growing number of schools and parents recognizing that unstructured play is required for children’s development.

In fact, a policy report from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents actually start scheduling time for playing, citing the many benefits, including:

  • developing language and executive functioning skills,
  • learning to negotiate with others,
  • managing stress,
  • figuring out how to pursue goals while ignoring distractions.

And attitudes toward play seem to be changing in Asia, too. A small study in the Hong Kong Journal of Early Childhood found that parents in mainland China are starting to reject the traditional Chinese notion that learning is beneficial while play is not.

Instead, they are now seeing the benefits of letting their kids play.

How to become a play-embracing parent

If you are not yet a proponent of playtime, it’s not too late. You can teach yourself to embrace the power of play if you are a parent.

Read up on it.

While we’ve gone over the numerous benefits of unstructured play here in this article, you can find a variety of articles and other pieces written by experts that will give you a broader picture of why playtime is so important for kids.

Plan it.

While it seems counterintuitive to plan for unstructured playtime, you might need to do just that. If your child’s day is highly structured, you may need to block off an hour or so to specifically make sure there is random play in your child’s schedule.

Put the screens away.

Unfortunately, if kids are left to their own devices nowadays, that often means gravitating toward the nearest wifi-enabled device to entertain themselves. But, you should try to encourage them to use their own imaginations rather than finding entertainment online.

Let them be bored.

Being bored is as important to children’s development as play. It allows them to flex their creativity muscles and come up with new ways to entertain themselves. You may want to get them a toy that encourages imagination and creativity like building blocks to help facilitate play.

Not every activity needs to have a goal in mind to reach. Sometimes, children just need to be able to play without trying to achieve anything (or make up the pretend goal themselves). It will help them navigate the myriad unexpected turns life tends to throw at all of us.

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