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 free play for your child
By Aruna Raghuram
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. Free play can also be engaged in 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.
Unstructured play is spontaneous, creative, child-driven, 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:
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 them, particularly in the realms of developing creativity, leadership and group skills.
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.
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:
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 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 six-year-old
The case study below highlights the use of play therapy. Play therapy utilises child's natural proclivity for free play in the therapeutic setting to uncover the emotions of a child.
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 under-prioritised in children’s lives. The report brings to light some startling figures:
The lack of free play can actually be harmful. Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, after interviewing 6000 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 him 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 each other in the water at a beach? Or the satisfaction when they have built 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.
About the author
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 25th 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. Presently, she is a consultant with ParentCircle.
About the expert
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 5th Aug 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.
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