Watch Your Child Bloom With Free Play
While the importance of play in a child’s development is well-known, the value of unstructured or free play is often underestimated. Here’s why and how you must encourage your child for free play.
By Aruna Raghuram • 18 min read
Seven-year-old Vinay and his friends love playing in the open field behind his house. They run around, jump over rocks, and take turns catching each other. Sometimes, they stop to pick up an interesting looking stone, or admire a beautiful butterfly.
What Vinay and his friends engage in is an example of ‘unstructured’ or free outdoor play. Children can also engage in free play indoors – stacking up cushions to build a cosy home in the corner of the living room, using blocks to create whatever you want, make-believe games of being a pilot or firefighter, or toddlers playing with soft toys and Dinky cars.
The term ‘play’ covers a large variety of activities that children (and adults) engage in for the enjoyment they get, without thinking much about the end result. But play is important work for kids—it is crucial for their intellectual, emotional, social and motor development.
What is unstructured or free play?
Unstructured play is spontaneous, creative, child-driven and open-ended activity. If at all there are rules, they are simple and improvised. There is no strategy or specific learning objective. These days, play has become more adult-directed and structured. Organised sports, such as cricket or football, and board games or card games, are examples of structured play.
Both types of play are important for a child’s well-being, learning and development. However, the value of unstructured play is often underestimated. Dr Michael Patte, an educationist, wrote in his article ‘The decline of unstructured play’ for the website www.thegeniusofplay.org that recent research suggests that children should experience twice as much unstructured playtime as structured play, as it benefits holistic child development.
Types of play
The book, A Playworker’s Taxonomy of Play Types, authored by B. Hughes (2002), identifies 16 different types of play. Given below are a few of them and how they involve unstructured activities:
- Rough and tumble — Energetic, physical play such as play-fighting, chasing, and even tickling one another
- Imaginative/pretend — In this, the child fantasises, for example, that he has wings and can fly, or is a doctor in a make-believe world
- Socio-dramatic — Playing house, pretending to be in a shop or restaurant
- Creative — Making something out of waste material like old newspaper or plastic bottles
- Locomotor — Hide-and-seek, and tree climbing
- Exploratory — Feeling the texture of the sand while building sand castles at the beach
Benefits of unstructured play
According to an American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP, 2007) report: “Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, and discover their own areas of interest…”
In contrast, says the report, when play is controlled by adults, children have to follow adult rules and concerns (like winning) and lose some of the benefits play offers, particularly in the realms of developing creativity, leadership and group skills.
- Must for very young children: The importance of unstructured play for very young children cannot be overemphasised. It is widely recommended that toddlers and preschoolers engage in some form of unstructured play for at least an hour each day.
- Promotes health and general well-being: Encouraging unstructured outdoor play is a great way to increase physical activity levels in children, making them healthy and fit. It could be something as simple as climbing the monkey bar in the park or a game of throwing and catching a ball in the backyard. Children are exposed to sunlight and absorb much-needed vitamin D. Outdoor play like spending time in a tree house or camping in the garden also brings a child close to nature.
- Betters cognition: ‘Pretend play’ or imaginative play is usually unstructured. In the article ‘The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development’ published in Psychology Today, Kaufman and colleagues (2012) report on research that increasingly demonstrates a series of clear benefits of children’s engagement in pretend games from the ages of two till seven years. These include cognitive benefits like increased language usage, the expression of both positive and negative feelings, and better self-regulation such as reduced aggression, delay of gratification, civility and empathy.
- Improves ‘executive function’: In the study ‘Less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning’, Barker and colleagues (2014) say that unstructured play might be associated with signs of better self-directed (not specified by an adult) ‘executive function’ in young children. Executive function includes memory, planning, reasoning and problem solving, and is a critical part of growing up.
- Generates a sense of freedom and also control: In unstructured play, children are free to explore their surroundings and discover things for themselves. They are also in control as they can create their own rules and set their own limits.
- Enhances creativity: Unstructured play boosts the imagination and creativity of a child tremendously. While making something (such as a painting or a papier-mâché bowl), children discover the joy of creation. The study ‘Unstructured Play and Creative Development in the Classroom’ by Thiessen and colleagues (2013) found that when there was no close supervision by adults, children readily engaged in exploratory and experimental behaviour. When adults were present, the behaviour of the children took on a more expected and less imaginative/creative direction.
- Equips to cope with emotions and stress: The environment in unstructured play is relatively stress-free. There is no fear of failure. Children are allowed to make mistakes without being pulled up by adults or penalised by peers. Play also helps a child work through difficult emotions, fears and anxieties in a non-threatening environment. Child and adolescent psychotherapist Katie Hurley, in the article ‘Summertime Solutions: The Benefits of Unstructured Play’ (2018) says: “Have you ever watched a toddler dress up as a doctor and administer check-ups and shots to all of her stuffed animals? You are witnessing the power of play as a coping process.”
Spurs initiative to counter boredom and find satisfaction: The next time your child comes to you and says she is bored, ask her to find a way to occupy herself enjoyably instead of giving suggestions. Free play enables children to create their own happiness and develop self-reliance.
- Develops life-skills: Free play and unscheduled time allow for peer interactions, an important component of social and emotional learning. Children work with each other to solve problems and make decisions. While listening to each other and sharing ideas, children pick up vital social skills like communication and teamwork.
- Provides opportunity for parent-child bonding: Free play offers parents a wonderful opportunity to engage fully with their children. Thereby, they gain an insight into what their child is feeling or thinking. This is particularly true if the child is an introvert. And, of course both parent and child can act goofy and have lots of fun!
ParentCircle spoke to Preethi Vickram, educator, parent coach and founder of LIFE (Leadership Initiatives for Educators) about unstructured play:
Q. What according to you are the major benefits of unstructured play for a child?
A. I would like to highlight the three major benefits:
- Unstructured play exercises the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which leads to the development of higher-order thinking skills. This is because free play makes a child choose, decide, think out the steps, and discover the consequences.
- Social interaction is better without adult intervention. Even shy children are able to mingle with more outgoing ones.
- In role play and fantasy play, children make up their own roles and this improves their creativity. I have worked on a project where ‘loose parts’ were left in the environment surrounding children and they picked these up to make something. We found that children were much more creative in this situation than in structured activities.
Q. What should be done to ensure that children get enough time for unstructured play?
A. Children miss out on unstructured play in school. This is because schools sometimes confuse games with play. They feel that as long as they have games and PT periods, they have done their bit. Also, they feel that free play is needed only in early childhood, and after eight years of age, a child needs more structured activities. I am very happy that the National Education Policy document says play should be the pedagogy in the foundation stage.
Parents could encourage free play by not enrolling children in summer camps and other structured activities during vacation time. Second, they could choose open-ended toys for young kids that support unstructured play. The toys should not be battery-operated or come with manuals — children must be able to figure out how to play with them using their imagination. Third, keep kids away from screens and gadgets as they do not allow kids to think and create on their own.
Free play has had an extremely important role in shaping my daughter Kiara’s personality. I give her the autonomy to decide what she wants to do (besides school, meal times, and sleep), thereby ensuring time for free play. Giving her autonomy makes her feel confident and happy. I do not enrol her in classes she does not enjoy. She only learns karate, which she likes. She has found ways to keep herself happily occupied, playing on her own, and also spends sufficient time with her grandparents.
Also, Kiara goes to a school which follows the Montessori system of education. This gives her ample time for free play, such as playing in the mud and gardening. The campus is large and green, with a lot of birds. Kiara is an animal- and insect lover, and I let her experience everything - from holding an earthworm to petting cows and dogs on the street.
- Tana Trivedi, faculty at a B-school and mother of a 6-year-old
The case study below highlights the use of play therapy. Play therapy utilises a child's natural proclivity for free play in the therapeutic setting to uncover the emotions of a child.
Ensuring time for free play
Children do not get sufficient free play these days. The major culprits are the overscheduled lives children lead, lack of access to safe outdoor play spaces, and low play levels in schools.
According to the Real Play Coalition’s Value of Play report (2018), 98% of parents say they believe play helps children reach their full potential. Yet, despite the evidence, play is still undervalued and underprioritised in children’s lives. The report brings to light some startling figures:
- 47% of children’s time is now focused on structured activities
- 1 in 5 children say they are ‘too busy’ to play
- 20% of children get less than 1 hour of free play per week
The lack of free play can actually be harmful. Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, after interviewing 6,000 adults about their childhoods, observed that the absence of unstructured, imaginative play can prevent children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults.
The problem: Academic pressures begin at an early age these days. After homework and tuition classes, where does a child have the time or energy to play?
What parents can do: Ensure your child strikes a balance between work and play. Avoid a packed study schedule for him.
The problem: Busy parents in nuclear families find it easier to manage their child’s time by enrolling her in hobby classes and/or sports coaching.
What parents can do: Realise that by allowing your child time for free play (and even joining her in it) you are being nurturing and supportive. You don’t need to keep scheduling structured activities.
The problem: At times, free outdoor play is not safe and with both parents working, there is no adult to supervise such play. Caregivers take the easy way out and allow the child to watch television or urge him to take a nap.
What parents can do: Instruct the caregiver to encourage your child to participate in both indoor and outdoor free play.
The problem: The increasing popularity of passive entertainment like television, and of other screen-based activities like surfing the Internet, playing video games, and interacting with friends on social media, have all reduced the time available for free play.
What parents can do: Limit screen time and strictly enforce these limits. Encourage outdoor activities. Go on a walk or cycle-ride with your child. A swing or slide in the backyard will also do the trick of getting her outside the house. Earlier, in less scheduled times, parents would push their children to ‘go play outside with friends’ each evening.
The problem: Children may need a little help in finding ways to play indoors.
What parents can do: For young children, rearrange the furniture to create a play area. Keep art and craft supplies handy. You might want to make that space reader-friendly as well.
The problem: Sometimes, toys and games bought by adults are too structured and have too many instructions.
What parents can do: Choose simple toys. Some of the toys you buy for your child should not require them to follow instructions. Your child should be encouraged to use his imagination and initiative while playing with them. Such items include blocks, dolls and art supplies.
Have you seen the exhilaration on the faces of children splashing water on each other in the beach? Or the satisfaction they feel when they build a castle on the dining table by stacking a pack of cards? Ensure your child has enough time to enjoy the sheer joy of free play. Not only will she get to learn about the world around her and build life skills, she will also grow up to be a happier adult.
In a Nutshell
- Unstructured or free play is important for a child’s well-being, learning and development
- It helps in developing creativity, leadership and group skills
- By allowing their child time for free play (and even joining them in it) a parent can be nurturing and supportive
What you can do right away…
- Ensure your kids’ routines are not packed with too many classes and activities
- Choose simple toys for your child that enable free play
- Limit your child’s screen time and encourage unstructured outdoor play instead
About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 25 July 2019.
Aruna Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a consultant with ParentCircle.
About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 7 November 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).
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