My daughter recently reminded me of the importance of setting aside free time. I told her of all the fun holiday activities I planned to book her into. I thought she would be excited. Instead she sat quietly then whispered "all I want to do is play at home". I tried to convince her how fun they would be. Then I stopped. I realised she had recognised what she needed most.
What our busy over-scheduled kids need most is time to simply play.
I reduced the number of scheduled activities and organised a few play dates and sleepovers at home instead. I've slowed down the scheduling and am setting aside plenty of time for unstructured play.
Unstructured play, the kind of play that happens without adult guidance or formal toys, is worth encouraging. Research has shown that unstructured play helps children develop their physical and emotional strengths, creativity, and imagination. Unstructured play among children is particularly valuable for teaching them how to share, negotiate, communicate and resolve conflicts.
It seems counter-intuitive, but I find myself having to schedule and organise unstructured play. It's not a matter of simply ensuring my daughter has free time - because if she managed her free time she'd spend it sitting in front of a screen.
Here are some of my favourite ways to encourage unstructured play:
1. Suggest a cubby house be built
Provide some sheets, a couple of cardboard boxes, or send them outside and see what they can find.
I recently sat back and watched my daughter and a friend create a cubby house in a small tree in ourbackyard. They enthusiastically planned their world and then decorated it. They negotiated, created, collaborated, and assessed risk. To them, they were simply playing, but to me they were gaining valuable life skills that will help them in the real world - far beyond their temporary tree house.
I especially love that cubby houses provide a place seemingly separate from the adult world. A child-created cubby can give children a much-needed sense of freedom and achievement. It may only be a sheet over some chairs, a cardboard box, or a gap under a shrub to us, but to a child it's their own secret space. Somewhere where they rule - if only for a moment.
2. Visit a natural environment
Take a thermos of tea, sit back and watch the kids find something to do. It won't take long. There's space to run and explore and endless natural objects such as sticks, stones, dirt, leaves, mud and water to play with.
3. Let there be mess
Unstructured play can get messy. There might be mud pie making, cardboard boxes scattered across the living area, or every towel dragged out to create a tent. I've learnt to accept the chaos and mess. It's a small price to pay for the valuable play. But I do make sure to involve the kids in clean up.
4. Provide plenty of creative materials
We've had bits of waste timber sitting by our back door for a couple of weeks. It's become our daughter's favourite play material. I also like to sacrifice the kitchen table for the day. I place paints, recycled containers, glue and other craft material on the table and tell her she can create whatever she wants.
One of the benefits of unstructured play is that it doesn't cost anything. Kids don't really need loads of fancy toys or expensive activities - what they need most is time to simply play.
Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 13th April 2015.
I recently read these relevant words by Rachel. They beautifully expresses what our children need most and are worth a read.