Children need play in their daily lives so they can learn of the bigger world from a safe vantage point. As an early child educator, I have enjoyed watching children during play, because I could see them trying out new roles and discovering different aspects of themselves. In the context of free-play, they learn to better express their views and understand themselves in relation to the world. As a parent, I have been able to unobtrusively observe what is going on inside my children’s heads and indirectly learn what is of concern and at issue. In the security of play, I have heard them try out various life scenarios that would be very threatening if they were really happening in “true life,” (such as the loss of a parent). As a psychologist, I know play’s therapeutic value, for it allows a child to safely open up a closed door that is too harsh to view without a safety net. When given the chance to talk through a puppet or draw out a feeling with crayons and paper, a great deal can be learned about the child and his fears and problems.
There are many types of play, but for the most part they can be split into two categories- structured and unstructured play. When children are involved with organized sports, such as soccer or softball, this is structured play. So are playing board and card games. Rules are put into place in order to govern the choices of the players and identify courses of acceptable action.
Unstructured play is less specific in its goals or objectives. Children engage in free play that flows from point to point without set rules or expectations. For instance, five children might want to play “house” in the dress-up corner at school and there might be three mommies, one child and a dog. Everyone gets to contribute to the general idea without one child in complete control. In this type of play, there are often unexpected twists and turns that can keep the game going for a long period of time.
Unstructured play goes hand-in-hand with heightened imagination. When paired together, unparalleled creativity is unleashed and in this context, a child can travel anywhere she can envision, or he can try out any role he wants. By touching this creative side, the child is able to learn of the self, of what he is good at and what he dreams to be good at. This can only be accomplished if the child is afforded ample time and freedom to explore and discover his/her interests, skills and talents. Unstructured play allows for maximum exploration. This should be a given in childhood, however, it frequently is NOT.
The value of child-initiated play
When given the chance to play quietly by themselves, children at this age can easily become engrossed in highly imaginative play and can occupy themselves for extended periods, that is if they are used to having time to play and time to be alone. Parents often say that their children claim to be bored when they are asked to play quietly or on their own. Although the child may swear to it as fact, boredom is not likely the case… he just needs some adult direction.
When a request is made for direction, make suggestions but refrain from giving directives. Half the fun of creating a game is in the process of discovering it for oneself. Many children have, unfortunately, lost this ability due to the intrusion of highly structured activity and the media. Regaining the freedom to think and act for themselves, will restore childhood to children.
Children who routinely have their time filled for them, often have difficulty filling it for themselves when asked to. Today, it seems that every available moment of free time is filled with some type of organized activity or sport. Children move from their regular school day program to ice skating, French class, soccer and ballet, all before dinnertime. They are learning how to be “schedule-juggling” adults at an early age. Most parents believe that by giving their children these extra-curricular classes, they are providing an edge for success. Actually, what may be happening is that they may be robbing them of their personal creativity and imagination.
Free time allows for open-ended play, either while alone or with others. Play dates that are left unstructured frequently allow for the free flow of communication, the opportunity to learn “give and take” when with others, and the chance to create a play scenario that is unique to the two or three children involved in creating it.
If you can stand it, sit and watch a TV or cable program with your child. During the half-hour time frame, you are bombarded with dozens of messages -- from what to buy, what to eat and how to play with the commercially available toys that are directly derived from the program. If you look at the subtle messages, the story is often designed to serve as a script for subsequent play. Often there is a set story line -- the characters are given a task, they set out to do it, they encounter an obstacle, which they overcome, and then they receive some sort of reward. It is a formula that is proven and therefore is frequently repeated in many different programs.
Children are like sponges. They absorb what they encounter. Given this redundant message, they often employ this story line by default when they play. Sometimes, children are so dependent on the media’s direction that they feel they NEED to have the exact props (i.e. character toys) in order to successfully play a game. As a result, parents are often pressured into buying the toys that support the TV program (or really the opposite is true). Once in hand, the children simply mimic the show they previously watched. In this play context, the play is not free or unstructured, but is instead highly structured and often scripted. In this content the media has the supreme role in directing behavior.
Astute parents know that this heavy media presence can lead to many arguments and the opportunity for a child to be directed in ways contrary to a family’s own belief system. These parents recognize a child’s natural curiosity and encourage it to grow and flourish in new ways. They know children love to be free to try new things. In fact when given the chance, some can sit for hours and watch ants crawl back and forth across the ground, or watch tadpoles swim in the creek. Sometimes, this open-ended discovery can yield great imaginative play. Questions pop up that need to be answered, such as, What would it be like if we were the Queen Ant in the nest? Is there another world that exists on the other side of the water? These questions can provide the impetus for a highly imaginative game.
Giving our children the chance to explore and discover themselves in the context of free-play is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. Sharing our time with them during this discovery process has a worth beyond compare. When we, as adults, engage in play with our children, we rejuvenate and return to the child within.
Every adult should, on occasion, engage in some type of play. Then we can better understand its value and importance. Play permits us to be free to try new things without fear or the need to be serious. We all can do with a moment or two of pure unadulterated freedom, can’t we? We should learn this valuable lesson from our children, and provide for them the chance to stay children as long as they can.