Let them play!

Soon the school year will be ending, and we’ll be enjoying the warmer weather and the longer days that accompany the approach of the summer solstice. 

It’s the ideal time to start spending more time outdoors — and to let our children capitalize on their core strength as kids: Playing!

I’m a firm believer that all children need to experience a balanced approach to play. 

Organized activities, such as sports and camps, can provide wonderful opportunities for kids to develop a wide range of physical, emotional and interpersonal skills. 

But sometimes in our modern culture, organized and structured activities can fill too much of our children’s free time. This shift from spring to summer is a perfect time to be reflective — and make sure our children have frequent opportunities to experience unscheduled, self-directed, screen-free play. 

When children are constantly entertained — or all their activities are structured — they can lose chances to develop critical skills. An article in The Atlantic — Why Free Play is the Best Summer School — sums it up:

“Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children. It is fertile ground; the place where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills and shore up their physical health.” 

The same article highlighted a study by University of Colorado psychologists that illustrated the value of free play, including how it can contribute to the development of children’s executive functioning — a broad term that covers self-regulation, task initiation, organization, long-term planning and the ability to switch between activities, all critical skills for life and learning.  

Nurturing play 

How can we encourage playful, open-ended experiences for our children? 

  • Avoid over-scheduling: Seek balance with structured activities and/or organized sports with free time for open-ended play. Provide long, interrupted periods of time for your child (45 to 60 minutes is ideal) for spontaneous free play. You may even need to schedule this into the complex rhythms of your busy days.
  • Feed your child’s creativity: Provide simple, open-ended art supplies and materials as well as toys that encourage imaginative or free play. We have an art table set up in our home where our children have constant access to art materials (crayons, markers, paper, tape, glue); and our children gravitate toward that area for creative projects. Favorite indoor toys in our household include our collections of Playmobil figures and LEGOs.  If you have a large variety of toys, consider doing a toy rotation to keep your play spaces simple, inviting and manageable.
  • Send them outdoors: Our children spend hours outdoors building forts and making playthings out of sticks, rocks and found objects. They ride their bikes and play active games like tag and hide and seek, which is good for their well-being and physical development.
  • Limit screen time: If your children have unlimited access to TV, computers, video games and other screens, they’ll inevitably get sucked in. Set limits. 
  • Be a role model: When my children come to me with nothing to do, I remind them that boredom is a choice. My husband and I model this philosophy regularly. 

When we aren’t busy with our grown-up responsibilities, we stay active with enrichment activities (hobbies, exercise, reading, getting outdoors).

A good reminder (inspired by my friend Annie) to both children and adults is this: Although it can be a little uncomfortable sometimes, feeling bored can be beneficial, especially when we’re all rather used to being overscheduled. 

Lessons of childhood

Our children deserve rich, pleasurable, enjoyable and abundant opportunities for play. 

When children play, they try new things, solve problems, invent, create, test ideas and explore, developing a broader range of skills and understandings.  

Help them be true to their nature as children this summer and encourage the art and practice of play!

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