As parents we all want the best for our children and we want to provide them with as many opportunities to grow and develop themselves as we can. We want to expose our children to experiences that are enriching and will enhance many different aspects of their development. But sometimes these loving intentions result in children being “over scheduled”, with most of their time taken up by adult directed activities, leaving very little time for free, child-directed play. However, research suggests that child-directed free play is of major importance to children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development.
“Free play” is unstructured, imaginative, child-directed play. It does not include playing video games or watching television, and it also does not include games with predetermined rules. Free play is so crucially important because it is the way in which children naturally learn the ways of the world. In play, children try on different roles, they work together to create their own rules, learn social skills such as problem solving and compromise, and children learn lessons about their physical environment by manipulating objects in their play. Children freely use their imagination in play and learn to “think outside the box” and become creative problem solvers. When children are engaged in free play, they are fully absorbed by what they are doing, they are engaged with their entire bodies and minds. Children learn best and most when they are so fully engaged in what they are doing. Adults can experience a similar state of absorption as well, some people call it “flow” or “being in the zone”. A good example of this is when professional athletes are performing their sport, or when artists are creating master pieces. It is so important for children to be in this state of “flow” as much as possible, because, as we all know, the more our brains do something, the better and more efficient they get at it, and the easier it becomes to get into that state again later.
The Scientific American recently published a great article summarizing the benefits of free play. Research suggests that free play is important in the development of social skills. Additionally, children who have very few opportunities for free play develop poorer social skills than children who have more opportunities for free play, and show less social adjustment as adults (for example, they get arrested more often). Additionally, play helps children reduce stress and lowers their anxiety. Finally, research shows that play is beneficial for children’s cognitive development. Because children are creative during play, come across unexpected situations, and use their imagination freely, play actually helps children become smarter!
A recently published New York Times article describes efforts of parents trying to reestablish free play in the lives of children. There is much that schools and we as parents can do to help. Parents can clear the schedule for several afternoons and on the weekend, turn off the television and computer, save homework for later, and let your children play! Parents and teachers can communicate about the amounts of homework that are being sent home, and recess should be defended as a child’s basic right. I hope that everybody who reads this blog will find some time to go out and play, and have fun with it!