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Unstructured Free Play Time for Kids is Critical

Using their imaginations – not just the Internet – is still crucial for today's children. Here's why, and what parents can do to help foster more of it.

Make-believe was a hallmark of kids' games a generation or two ago – playing "house" and "restaurant" or racing Big Wheels around the neighborhood until sunset. Sure, we watched TV – but there was always a limit, a time to turn it off and go "find something to do."

Today's children aren't quite as lucky. Yet scientists maintain free play is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills like problem-solving. If it goes extinct, experts say childhood – and society – will pay a high price.

So why has free play languished, and how can you rekindle it with your kids?

What has changed

But between 1981 and 1997, free-play time dropped about 25 percent, the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine notes. Modern parents shifted focus to early academics and organized activities – an "over-programming" trend that's persisted.

"It turned out to be not so much the 'academics' we were adding but the time we subtracted from the children's fantasy play that would make the difference," says educational leader Vivian Paley in A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play. "We blamed television for making children restless and distracted, then substituted an academic solution that compounded restlessness and fatigue."

A big mistake, she says, is making kindergarten academic. When it was pretend-focused, Paley says, "first-grade teachers could take their time beginning formal lessons. The earlier we begin academics, the more problems are revealed."

One reason for reduced play time today is more parents are working, and they're working longer hours – resulting in the need for children to spend before- and after-school time in structured, safe programs. Coupled with that is the fact that many modern parents opt to enroll their younger children in highly academic, structured programs in the hope it will give their kids an educational edge.

Why play still matters

It's all with good intentions, of course. But without the necessary freedom to explore the world early on, children may gain advancement in academics at a cost of losing interpersonal, social and emotional coping skills.

"In school and in the home, we've become overly goal-oriented and we're losing the process for the product," says Aviva Dorfman, an associate professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Michigan-Flint. "By imposing testing as a means of finding out what children know, we are preferencing certain kinds of thinkers and leaving others out."

Dorfman says the same is true of the highly structured nature of children's lives.

"All these activities are wonderful, but if you overly structure children's lives, they don't learn control," she says. "They don't have the opportunity to develop their own interests, to follow their own inspiration – to experience the competence of conceiving an idea, initiating it and following it through."

A study from the Alliance for Childhood shows extreme aggressive behavior in children is exhibited today more than ever before. Coincidence? Nope.

The research illuminates three universal truths:

  1. Childhood play is crucial for social, emotional and cognitive development.
  2. Imaginative free play – as opposed to games and structured activities – is the most essential kind of childhood play.
  3. Kids who do not play when they are young grow into anxious, socially maladjusted adults.

Reprioritizing play

The kind of play is as important as the amount of time doing it. Encouraging "open-ended toys" – which don't focus or stifle a child's imagination – is key.

More and more toys are "licensed" products of popular culture (movies and TV shows), stifling the imaginations of children who use them. Experts say these items limit the possibilities of imaginative play as opposed to open-ended, take-them-anywhere-you-want toys like blocks, clay and art supplies.

It's also key that kids have frequent chances to play outdoors – safely, of course. Being in nature is restorative, invigorating and nurturing, says Dorfman.

This doesn't nix mom and dad. Kids need and want adults – especially their parents – to play with them. Just not with a structured, "do-it-this-way" approach.

Let the child lead, says Gartenberg: "Dress up in costumes, role play and perform. Take cues from the children.

"Whatever parents play should be open-ended and nonjudgmental – no winner, no right, no wrong," she adds. "Make up stories and games in the car when traveling from school to home. Hide the cell phone. Look into your child's eyes when playing or communicating."

Get involved with your kids' sports, too, whether coaching or volunteering. When you exercise, involve your children, so it becomes a family effort. Making meals is also a prime time to explore; let children plan dinner and give them opportunities to make up recipes. Trial and error is one of the best ways of learning.

The long view

"Children will learn technology," Gartenberg says. "Now, they need to learn to laugh and to share. Texting and emails and Internet activity need to be monitored carefully. Parents should find childcare that emphasizes more than academics – a place that includes physical activity and lots of opportunity for play."

Starting early to play with your children – and making it free-wheeling and open-ended – not only helps your kids. You'll benefit, too.

"Children who see parents as fun-loving, communicative adults will continue communicating with them as they grow into teens," says Gartenberg. "Hopefully, as children learn to interact and play appropriately, they also will learn to stick up for each other and defy the bully and help others feel accepted."

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