Parents today constantly worry that we are not doing the right things for our children. We are bombarded on all sides with advice and social media shows us all of the perfect things other people are doing with their families.
There is a pervasive feeling that if little Susie doesn’t start Suzuki violin by age 3 she will never get into a world class orchestra. If she isn’t playing competitive football by age 5 she will never make the Olympic team, and if she can’t read before she starts school she won’t be able to go to university.
All of these worries are completely overblown. Just because we force something onto our children does not mean they will like it, be successful at it, or stick with it. Maybe Susie will decide she hates the violin, prefers dance class to football and wants to start a fashion blog instead of going to university.
While it is important that we provide our children the basic tools to be successful in life, like ensuring that they learn how to read and know how to interact appropriately with others, many of the other pressures that we feel and force them to endure could easily be discarded.
Instead of specific activities and engagements, our children would do better with more unstructured free play and outdoor time.
Benefits of Free Play
Children derive many benefits from free play time, especially when it occurs outdoors. They can test their limits and engage their creativity in ways that highly supervised and organised activities never really allow them to do. Some of the main benefits of free play include:
- Brain Development: Children have to use their brains when they are playing themselves. This forces them to think, troubleshoot and be creative.
- Social Skills: When children play with other kids in an unsupervised or lightly supervised setting they have to work together, share, negotiate among themselves and learn to resolve conflicts without turning to an adult to sort it out.
- Discover Interests: During play time children are free to pursue whatever activity interests them. In this way, they can start to figure out for themselves what activities they are passionate about so that when you do decide to enrol them in group sporting activity you can choose based on what they actually like.
- Parents Engagement: When your kids are having free play time you can play too. Sitting on the sidelines watching them play a sport is supportive but it doesn’t give you the same level of interaction as actually playing with them. Throwing a ball back and forth, or playing hide and seek can actually be fun and beneficial for you too.
- Reduce Stress: Children who are playing on a swing or climbing a tree are directing their own agenda and experiencing the soothing benefits of nature. This can help reduce the stress they may feel from other aspects of their life like pressure in school.
Free Play versus Sports
Many parents make the mistake of thinking that the importance of free play is exclusively the exercise it provides and that this can be alternatively provided by taking part in a team sport. Studies have shown that this is not the case.
Not only does free play offer numerous other benefits beyond physical activity, many of the supposedly active team sports don’t really provide kids with that much activity.
Practices and even games can include a surprising amount of down time for many of the children involved. A couple of hours a week of practice and then a game offers less opportunity for physical fitness than a half hour to an hour a day of playing in the backyard with your friends.
Free Play versus Academics
Not all free play happens outside. Free play inside is under attack too. In the 1950s the average kindergarten student went to school for half a day and spent much of that time playing and learning how to interact as part of a group.
Now kindergarteners often go for a full day of work. Academics are the focus and children are expected to know their letters, numbers and be able to write their name before they even start kindergarten.
They are required to sit and focus on teacher driven learning instead of being allowed to learn in a more natural way through play in the classroom. Experts warn that this failure to allow more time for play is having many negative consequences for our children. Some of these include increased stress, difficulties with social development and decreasing attention spans.
Ways to Facilitate Free Play and Outdoor Time
If you are having trouble fitting free play and outdoor time into your kid’s schedule you are clearly not the only one. While it can seem challenging, a few small changes can have a big impact.
Turn off your devices. Instead of spending time mindlessly watching television or scrolling through social media, designate that time to go outside and play as a family.
Alternatively, have your kids go outside to play for a half hour while you are making dinner. This allows you the freedom to focus on what you are doing, while providing them an opportunity to play without direct parental supervision.
Quit an activity. If you feel like you can’t possibly carve out a slot of time every day for free play, you are probably over scheduled. As a family, discuss your activities and you might be surprised. If it turns out that little Johnny really doesn’t care about Karate anymore, but has just been continuing with it because he had always done it, get rid of it. Use the time you save for free play instead.
Go to a park. In my family when we do have time off, we often fall into the trap of desperately trying to figure out what we are going to “do” with that time. You could spend $20 a person to go to the fancy children’s museum (and you probably should do that sometime, like in the middle of winter when the weather stinks) or you can just take your kids to the park. They will relish the chance to run around undirected at the park and play with other kids.
Go for a nature walk. Don’t be intimidated. I don’t mean a nature walk where you have to identify three types of trees and every bird that you see (although if you can do that kind of thing kudos to you.) We take our kids to a local reserve with an easy, 1 km, well-marked path that goes around a pond and through some woods. They run ahead of us finding things to point out, tripping over tree roots, and occasionally actually seeing a bunny or some other kind of wildlife.
Find an adventure playground. This one might be a bit more difficult because there aren’t very many, but if you live near one you should definitely take advantage of it. A true adventure or junkyard playground is a supervised play space that looks a bit like a junkyard. Parents are not really allowed and kids are encouraged to take managed risks when they play. They can climb all over and tools are provided so that they can cut and hammer and create their own playground.
More and more other types of adventure playgrounds are being created, that may not have the traditional junkyard feel but still provide children with more opportunity for imagination than just your basic swings and slide.
It is sad that in today’s society we have made something as simple as playing outside with your friends incredibly difficult to achieve. The good news is that there are many things you can do to reverse this trend within your own family.
Any increase in physical activity for you and your children can impact overall health. In addition, the added benefits of spending time in nature and with other kids will have long term benefits for their emotional well being. Also, in this time of worrisome climate changes, an appreciation of nature can only help children be more mindful of the impact that they have every day.