Written by Sarah Reader
As parents, we often find ourselves planning structured, educational and organized play opportunities for our kids in the summer, and there are some amazing summer programs offered in the Calgary area. But research is beginning to show that there is something even more beneficial for your child’s healthy development – unstructured play.
They say that play is the work of children, and it’s true! Play is how children learn about themselves, and discover the world around them and their place in it. Play is so important that the United Nations lists it as one of the basic rights of every child. True unstructured play has the following key characteristics; it’s freely chosen, intrinsically motivated, and personally directed. It is play without a set outcome or predetermined rules, it’s spontaneous and fun, and changes depending on the needs and desires of those involved.
When we are truly in play, we are free to be ourselves and can explore, create and imagine to our heart’s content. Play is not only a blast, but the science tells us that it is critical for the healthy development of children’s bodies and brains.
Here are six incredible ways that unstructured play benefits our children’s healthy development:
- Play helps strengthen the connections in the front (prefrontal cortex) of the brain. This part of the brain is responsible for our executive functioning which allows us to problem solve, make plans, and regulate emotions. When kids are playing freely on their own or with peers, they get to try different things, test their limits, learn what works and what doesn’t, and how to cooperate with others. Brains that play are found to be more flexible and can better deal with the unexpected.
- Play fosters creativity and imagination. Unlike structured play with rules and certain behaviors or activities that all of the participants have to follow, unstructured play celebrates ingenuity, individuality and uniqueness. When children are playing, they create whole make-believe worlds that stretch their imaginations. They encounter problems or social disagreements and come up with ways to solve them. This flexible thinking and ability to manage their own lives helps them to build confidence.
- Play builds resiliency and encourages independence. Kids are told what to do and how to do it throughout most of their day in school, programs or at home. While in play, kids get to make their own rules, have the power of choice, and get to be the leaders - this creates a greater sense of independence. Unstructured play allows children to recognize, engage with and learn to overcome risk, both physical and emotional. It can bring them to the edge of their comfort zone and may be a little scary but also incredibly empowering. As children face their fears and engage with risk in a fun and healthy way, it builds confidence and resilience in stressful situations.
- Play promotes physical literacy and physical fitness. Whether running around the yard, climbing trees or building cardboard box forts, unstructured play often means moving the whole body. When children play freely, particularly outdoors, they move more, sit less and play longer. Regular, active play helps children sharpen reflexes, increase motor control, develop better balance, build strong muscles, improve bone density, and increase cardio vascular function – all things that help promote and create fit and healthy children.
- Play helps to develop social skills. Unstructured play is where children learn to take turns, self regulate, interact with peers, and understand social norms such as what behaviors are acceptable and which ones require refinement. They get to choose when to engage in group play, or when they wish to be alone, and they figure out ‘how are we going to solve this problem?’ or ‘what are the rules going to be?’.
- Play provides a calming and reinvigorating experience, and can reduce stress and anxiety. When we are fully in play, the rest of the world melts away. Play is all-consuming, judgment free, joyful, authentic and necessary. Play helps to increase positive emotions which leads to more kind behavior, feelings of connection and acceptance, and better overall wellbeing.
Unstructured play that isn’t organized by an adult nor has any defined purpose (other than to have fun!) is a fundamental necessity for children to be able to thrive physically, emotionally and socially. So when you are looking into all of the fun and planned activities that you can do with your kids this summer, don’t forget to add in time to do…nothing.
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