The word “play” sounds like all fun and games, and of course it is in part, but scientific research also shows how important play and free time really is for all people. Children in particular with their growing bodies and minds benefit greatly from being allowed unstructured time to sort through the ins and outs of human life and behavior. Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child. This report from the American Academy of Pediatrics also shows that play enhances self esteem, cooperation, abstract thinking, problem solving, communication skills, and so much more, but still our culture does not give it the recognition it deserves.
Even with all the benefits of free play, studies show that children today spend a lot more time focused on adult-initiated structured play and academics than ever before. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 stressed the need for math and reading skills but neglected the importance of play and other things like arts and active time. Many schools no longer have recess and where it does exist it is much shorter than just a decade ago. After school, many kids are rushed around to other organized activities or day cares. These kids are missing out; not just missing the benefits of free play but also missing the freedom to choose what to do with their own time. Over-scheduling can lead to stressed out kids, depressed young adults, and then unhappy adults who haven’t gotten the chance to enjoy their lives.
There are many reasons for this trend; society’s desire for academic perfection has parents of young children rushing to buy their babies the latest learning tools and toys, and worrying about whether their kids are smart enough to get into a good preschool. Parents today are also more apt to limit outdoor play because of concerns that kids will get hurt. Connecting with nature is important for us human animals and running around in the fresh air is definatly a plus for people of all ages.
So what’s a parent to do in our habitually rushed and stressed out world? My family has chosen to homeschool our children so we have greater control over our daily schedules. We leave lots of free time for our children to focus on their passions and to be with their friends and family. I’ve found that even though I am aware of the importance of relaxed play I still have to stop and remind myself to slow things down. I remember that children are born with a great desire to learn and do this through play. According to the American Association of Pediatrics, play is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children. Play comes totally naturally to them as long as it’s allowed.
Here are some tips for encouraging healthy free play with your children:
- Remember kids naturally want to learn.
- Young kids play best when adults are involved. Be there to help but don’t hover.
- Take time to relax at home: read, play pretend, cook dinner together.
- Play outside: take your kids to natural settings, not just playgrounds, and see where their imaginations lead you.
- Show kids things that you did as a child, like playing red rover, hula hooping or climbing trees, and then give them the reigns.
- Find a balance that makes both the parent and child comfortable and happy.