By Kylie Dawson
We can often get the idea that we need to fill our child’s world with lots of structured and planned events and experiences, such as dance classes, soccer programs and French tutoring. It is absolutely understandable, that as parents we want to provide our child with lots of different experiences, the opportunity to explore and the chance to build new skills, knowledge and interests. We can even think that if our child is not in a program or class of some kind they are missing out or are going to be left behind. However, in this busy world it can help to be reminded that unstructured play is the very best thing we can provide to our children to support their growth, and development and optimise their health and wellbeing.
Research tells us that unstructured, unplanned play is the best type of play for children, and that this type of play helps to foster children’s problem solving skills, creativity, imagination, physical development, and social skills.
Often as adults we see play as arbitrary, a time waster, lacking in focus and not an activity that produces tangible outcomes (apart from mess!) Sometimes, when adults view children’s unstructured play it seems chaotic, disconnected, unfocused and without direction and we might view the soccer program, piano class, or gymnastics as “better” because it is led by an adult, it is structured, targeted, and focuses on creating a specific set of outcomes. However, what we do know is that what seems like a crazy and disconnected whirlwind of activity to us, is very important for children’s health, development, and wellbeing.
Adults are often the ones that hold the metaphorical keys to children’s play; we decide if it is ok for them to play now, or later. We decide if they can set up a shop in the living room, or not. We determine if they will have paints, glue, markers, and chalk and if, and when, they can access them. We are the ones that decide if the pillows that were laid on the floor for watching Bluey can now be used to build a cubby. We are the ones that decide if we are going home to run around the backyard or going to a specific program at Little Athletics. And yes, children can’t engage in unstructured play all the time; they do have to pack up and have their bath, or have dinner, or get dressed to go to their Nanna’s birthday lunch. It’s about knowing when we can let go and let them play and explore, and when we need to follow and implement a routine.
Let’s explore an unstructured play experience and all of the learning it has to offer a child.
Your child might start digging in the sandpit. At first, they find it a bit tricky because the sand just keeps slipping back into the hole, but they keep working at it and figure out that they need to sit further back from the edge of the hole, and they need to move the sand further away from the edge once they have dug it up. They find a seed pod in the sand, they roll it between their fingers, hold it close to look at it, and then they put it back in the hole and head off to look for more treasure around the garden. They start filling the hole with all the things they find, sticks, stones, old dog bones. Once they have filled it with treasure, they start shovelling the sand back in, covering up the hole. They then put a rock on top of the spot where their treasure is hidden. Now, we would have to have a conversation with the child to determine what their goals and thought processes were, but even without that we can determine the learning they have engaged in. They have been problem solving, building their fine and gross motor skills, exploring the properties of sand, determining how much force they need to exert to scoop up the sand and shift it, figuring out the items they can lift and carry themselves, working out how to fill that hole back in, and determining a suitable approach to marking a specific location by placing the rock on top of the hole.
Don’t get me wrong, you can still plan for things based on their interests. For example, if your little one really loves kicking soccer balls, you can still support them in this by heading to the park with friends and having a bunch of balls available for the kids to all kick around and play with as they would like (however we go with an open mind that accepts that they might kick the balls for two minutes before they find a lizard, follow it to a pile of rocks, relocate the rocks to the base of the tree, and then cover them with flowers and leaves).
Your child has a lifetime ahead of them to participate in structured activities and to hone skills in areas they are interested in and trust me when I say that they definitely won’t be ‘left behind’ if they are not enrolled in specific classes. Actually, the opposite is true; if they are supported and enabled to engage in unstructured play, they will develop skills and knowledge that only this type of play can provide.