Summer vacation is almost here. Programs and activities fill quickly, and parents often feel the pressure to grab spots while they can. This is especially true for parents unable to be home with their children during the summer break, and those who fear kids will languish if left to their own devices.
But in the push to settle your child’s summer schedule, it’s wise to allow for a generous dose of unstructured playtime. His or her mental health, as well as academic and social success, could depend on it.
Intuitively, we may see free playtime in school or elsewhere as nice but not essential—a time to decompress, socialize and perhaps get some exercise. But a quick survey of what experts have said on the subject reveals that it’s all that and much more.
In fact, unstructured play is critical to human development, and plays a role in a child’s ability to empathize, problem-solve, collaborate, and process information, says UT’s Anthony Petrosino, who holds a doctorate in education and human development. His areas of expertise include project-based instruction and problem solving in STEM disciplines. Petrosino’s perspective is shared by many and bolstered by research.
For instance, a recent study published in Evolutionary Psychology concluded that the “opportunity for free play in childhood significantly predicts both social success and individual adaptability.” Even school systems have recognized the importance of unstructured playtime. Last year, AISD began requiring all elementary schools to give students at least 30 minutes of unstructured play (recess) per day, in addition to their already mandated 135 minutes per week of structured physical activity.
Unstructured play refers to activities that are open-ended, creative and active, although not necessarily athletic, according to Stacey Shackelford, PhD, Chair of the Child Care and Development Department at Austin Community College. “Play is extremely valuable for child learning, understanding concepts, experimentation, and also for emotional and mental processing,” she says.
Yet experts also worry that children are increasingly deprived of the time and freedom to play in an unstructured, healthy way. Heavily scheduled lives, pressures to develop specific skills that may make children more “competitive,” concerns about safety and the prevalence of pastimes like TV viewing and video gaming are just a few of the hurdles today’s families may face in finding play time.
Playing with objects that stimulate the imagination (like Legos or blocks), dramatic pretend play, and self-directed artistic endeavors are examples of the types of play children need in terms of brain development and even mental health, Shackelford says. That’s because such activities give children the opportunity to make decisions, plan and set goals, and, when playing with others, to negotiate. They let children produce results independent of adult direction, thus building self-confidence and a sense of control, which may help mitigate depression and anxiety.
Doing something improvisational and creative (like building a fort out of pillows or cardboard boxes) is the gold standard in terms of unstructured play. During such activities, Shackelford explains, children get to use meta-cognitive processing, which is different from the thinking they do when trying to conform to external rules or expectations. “They are pulling back and looking at what they have done, thinking about it and problem solving. ‘OK, now I’ve got this, what am I going to do next?’” she says.
Of course, structured activities like organized sports, swim lessons and camps may offer great additions to your child’s summer. But look for options that also provide open-ended, self-directed activities and at home, strive to create pockets of time for unstructured play, Shackelford says. TV viewing, video gaming and even board games don’t count, she adds. These activities may be relaxing and fun, but shouldn’t displace your child’s unstructured play.
For older children and teens, Shackelford says it’s key to have projects and cultivate specific interests or hobbies your child truly enjoys, structured or not.
Finally, whatever your child’s age, join in some activities if you can. Drawing pictures or making clay figures alongside your very young child models how to play without rules and gives him or her permission to create. Let your older child plan and lead a project of his or her choosing, while you play a supporting role. Engage in your own unstructured “play” by discovering a long-lost hobby or passion. Along with being a great role model for your kids, you might just find your own spirits rising.
Margaret Nicklas is an Austin-based freelance journalist, writer and mom who covers public affairs, public health and the well-being of children.