The next time your child care provider or teacher says kids "just played" during the afternoon, be happy that the unstructured activity might be the healthiest development of all for kids.
Parents today load their youngster's schedule with enrichment activities, early music and art tutorials, "brain-time" videos and other stimulating activities, and academic-focused classes because they feel that will help their child get ahead. Many daycare providers feel compelled to post hourly activities and themes while minimizing "free time" play because parents often indicate they think that is not the best use of their tot's day. (Some adults even argue that since they are paying for their kid's care, the children should be in structured learning activities, with free time done outside of the day.)
But the American Academy of Pediatrics says that spontaneous "kid play" is actually what kids need and crave for healthy development and the building of appropriate social skills. So instead of thinking that unstructured kid play is a waste of time or feeling disappointed over the lack of enrichment or academic-focus, realize that the spontaneous kid play may be just what the doctor prescribed for overall health and social development!
The American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report on The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds says that this type of unstructured play has numerous benefits. In addition to "brain time," it can help children develop creativity, discover their own individual interests and passions, encourage interaction with others, and let them practice decision making skills. It also fosters kids to determine for themselves that they view as "fun."
The report further cites that a lack of free kid play can create stress for kids, can contribute to depression, and also increase obesity risks. While enrichment activities can also be beneficial, the report encourages that parents not consider them requirements for successful children.
This finding doesn't surprise many child care providers, although it does serve as an affirmation or "expert advise" to what most providers and early-education teachers already practice. One in-home provider from North Carolina indicated that she has distributed copies of the report to her parents.
"Free time can be the happiest part of the day for kids in my care," says Kate, who has been watching children aged 5 and younger for 22 years. "They can turn tiny pebbles into mountains, pretend they are a princess or dragon slayer, dig for worms, play with their imaginary friend, or just run around in the back yard doing a lot or nothing at all. It's their brain and it's their world, and other than being safe and not causing harm to other kids, there are no rules or structure. They can make their life just they way they want it."
Along the same line of unstructured play, parents are urged to also create quality family time as well. The time together should be fun, simple and preferably not tie into an enrichment activity. (In other words, playing catch with a child to help him improve his T-ball game doesn't count.) Let kids take the lead and plan the time. It's a great way to see what your child thinks about and also how she values her time with you!