What does unstructured play mean? Dr. Avril Swan says “Unstructured play is that set of activities that children create on their own without adult guidance. Children naturally, when left to their own devices, will take initiative and create activities and stories in the world around them. Sometimes, especially with children past the toddler stage, the most creative play takes place outside of direct adult supervision. Unstructured free play can happen in many different environments, however, the outdoors may provide more opportunities for free play due to the many movable parts, such as sticks, dirt, leaves and rocks which lend themselves to exploration and creation.”
Why are the outdoors so important for children? Dr. Swan makes the case in the same article, “The nature of an average child’s free time has changed. For the past 25 years kids have been spending decreasing amounts of time outdoors. The time that our kids do spend outdoors is frequently a part of an organized sports activity. Other activities taking up our children’s time include indoor lessons and organized events such as music, art and dance lessons. Another big indoor activity, taking up to 7.5 hours a day of our children’s time according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, is electronic entertainment. Of course some of these activities bring joy and fulfillment to our kids, but, in return, time for unstructured play has decreased.”
Fewer and fewer children are spending less and less time outside…that’s a big problem. What other childhood issues have we seen increase over the past 25 years? Obesity, ADHD, juvenile diabetes, just to name a few. Maybe spending more time outside makes kids healthier and more focused. One of my favorite books on children is called Calm and Compassionate Children by Susan Dermond. She discussed the role of nature in fostering a sense of calm and attitudes of compassion in children, even very young children.
When we think of kids who lack outdoor time, we think of kids who live in cities, maybe highrise apartment buildings. But, sadly enough, there are many farm kids who lack outdoor play time because their lives are so filled with outside-the-home activities like sports, lessons, clubs and the like. By the time kids come home from school, get their homework done and eat supper, go to an activity, it’s time for bed. Have they had time to play? To express passion, creativity and wonder?
The term “unstructured” is enough to turn many parents off. “Annie, of course my children play. The have all these toys!” But what kind of toys do they have? Are they toys that are what I call “one and done”? Do they do just one thing? Can they be just one thing? Or are they toys that can be anything your child can dream of? For many months, our son (who is a tried and true cowboy) used a dolphin piece from a chunk puzzle as a gun. It fit in his pocket and his hand. The dorsal fin made a good hammer and the other fin, a good trigger. Our kids have a tree-row that they call “The Cowboy Trees” where they have built a teepee. The have collected some old flowerpots, pans and such for their cooking and they make delicious dinners of leaves, rocks and dirt. This activity is entirely on their own. We are not there “supervising” or “suggesting” or “advising”. The kids will come to us to ask for help. “Mama, what could we use to have _______?” And we’ll talk about what they think will work. I love these questions! I can see my kids’ minds working, coming up with possible solutions and evaluating them against their abilities, needs and skills. It’s hard not to jump in and say “Well kids, this is the best way to make a pretend campfire in your teepee.” or even worse, “That will never work.”
Kids so desperately need to feel that anything is possible. That wearing a green blanket draped over your arms makes you a bat. But that same blanket wrapped around you makes you a tiny baby. Or stretched above you becomes a tent. That the giant refrigerator box could be a fort, a car and a tunnel. And if you put it on your trampoline and crawl inside, suddenly you are Jonah in the belly of the whale in the choppy sea.
No adult can be that creative. And to attempt to direct play simply tells your child that adults know best how to play. Here, let me show you.
I’d rather sit back and let them show me.
Day 16 Homework: How can we encourage unstructured play in our children? In ourselves?
In case you’ve missed them, here are the links to all the other bloggers sharing this month and the links to all of my previous posts:
You can find the master list of all of us, courtesy Holly Spangler.
And here is a list of all of my blog posts:
Day 1 – What is a Family?
Day 3 – How to Meet That Special Someone
Day 4 – The Dating Game
Day 6 – I Did Not Marry My Soulmate
Day 7 – There is No “I” in Team
Day 8 – Agree to Disagree
Day 9 – A Real Farmwife
Day 10 – Maternity Wards Aren’t Just for Cows
Day 11 – Terrific Toddlers
Day 12 – Doing School
Day 13 – Should Allowance be Allowed?
Day 14 – Home or Hotel?
Day 15 – All Work
Day 16 – And all Play is Not the Same