Children need to play—for social, physical and emotional development, and for mental health. As a matter of fact, play is so important for children it is listed as a right by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.
Unstructured, child-driven play is the primary way children learn about their environment. It provides opportunities to practice large and fine motor skills as well as social and decision making skills. Play allows children to express emotions and work out stress. Play involving parents is imperative for children to form strong relationships and develop confidence.
Go to any playground or park and observe the parents and children. What you are likely to see is kids playing on swings and jungle gyms while parents sit nearby engrossed in their smartphones. These parents are providing supervision but are not fully engaged with their children. As kids call out “watch this!” parents look up distractedly with acknowledgement and return to their screens a second later. While kids are getting free play, many are attempting to engage with their parents and inviting them to join in the fun.
Ideally some play should involve adults but be controlled by kids. When adults are structuring play, kids stop taking the initiative and passively accept rules, format and decisions made by adults. Joining your child in child-directed play allows parents an opportunity to see the world through the child’s eyes.
Playing with your child with full attention and engagement is important in developing and strengthening the parent-child bond. When children make the rules for play, they can practice decision making, discover their own interests, manage their stress and grow their confidence.
Over the last several decades, children’s free time has become dominated by structured activities. Organized activities certainly offer benefits to children. Participation outside of school in sports, music and other programs offers children chances to socialize, exercise and engage their creative side. The problem arises when scheduled, structured activities leave little or no time for free, unstructured play.
Many enrichment activities are heavily marketed to parents. Parents worry their children will fall behind peers if they are not involved in numerous activities. A lot of time is spent preparing for and driving to and from these activities. Time spent in the car is time not spent playing together.
According to an American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report by Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg, while many children thrive in a highly scheduled environment, others react with anxiety and other signs of stress. Ginsberg writes, “There is evidence that childhood and adolescent depression is on the rise through the college years. Although there are certainly many factors involved, and a direct link between the early pressure-filled intense preparation for a high-achieving adulthood and these mental health concerns cannot be made on the basis of current research, it is important that we consider the possibility of this linkage. We can be certain that in some families, the protective influences of both play and high-quality family time are negatively affected by the current trends toward highly scheduling children.”
Having a highly scheduled lifestyle also affects parents. Precious downtime is surrendered to transporting children to and from activities. Parents already juggling work and home responsibilities find themselves feeling harried and exhausted. There is less time to spend with children enjoying the daily routines of cooking meals, talking or playing together. Even when time allows, parents are worn out and don’t have the energy to fully engage with their children.
Parents are concerned about preparing their children for the future. How can they predict what skills will be needed in the adult world? Regardless of what the future brings, all children will require resiliency, compassion, a decent work ethic and decision-making skills. Having an involved, attentive, loving relationship with a parent best fosters these attributes.
Parents know their children best and can judge what balance of structured and unstructured time best suits their particular child. Be wary of falling into the trap of filling free time with numerous enrichment activities. Unstructured time is good for kids. During unstructured time, play with your children in ways organized by them. You will get a precious glimpse into their world and your relationship will be better for it.
Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their son in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist.