5 Things Kids Lose When They Don’t Have Time for Free Play

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When speaking at preschools and elementary schools, I always talk about the power of play. It’s a touchy subject these days. On the one hand, kids from preschool on up are involved in a wide variety of activities, and many of these activities involve some aspect of play. Many parents stay behind to tell me that these “enrichment” activities benefit their kids in many ways. I don’t doubt that. On the other hand, kids lack time to engage in unstructured, child-directed free play. Kids are so busy with adult-directed enrichment activities that they rarely have time to sit down in a mud puddle and create their own fun.

To be clear, I’m not against enrichment activities. I am, however, a proponent of free play. While “everything in moderation” is a nice sentiment that is often passed around, I find (both in my work and in my life) that there isn’t a ton of balance these days. Kids are overtired, stressed, cranky, and many are dealing with anxiety. Dig beneath the surface and you’ll find that lack of playtime is one of the common denominators contributing to increased stress and a host of other issues for young children right now.

It might seem like tutoring for math and reading will give your kid a leg up in kindergarten, but I can assure that plenty of time to engage in child-directed play will actually prepare your child for the future.

Free play boasts many benefits, including academic skills (yup, they work on those coveted math and literacy skills when engaged in play), social skills, emotional regulation, problem-solving skills, and conflict resolution skills (to name a few.) Free play is not simply a leisure activity children engage in when they’re bored. Play is the very important work of childhood.

Still not convinced? Check out what kids lose when they lack sufficient time to play on their own terms.

They struggle to solve problems.

Playtime provides the perfect opportunity to work on problem-solving skills. High-level play (sustained play themes) requires planning and extended time to play. Through this kind of play, kids use creative problem-solving skills to work through issues. If, for example, they want to run a café but they don’t have a café register or menus as props, kids will find ways to create those necessary items. They might draw menus and use old cardboard boxes to build a working cash register.

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Group play also helps kids work through interpersonal problems. Kids will encounter conflicts when playing, but to continue playing together they have to learn to compromise and listen to one another. When an adult does this for them, they are robbed of the opportunity to learn.

They fear risk.

Unstructured play certainly can be risky at times. Left to their own ideas, you will find that kids do things like climb as high as possible in trees or on furniture and then jump or mix up a bunch of liquids found around the house to create “potions”. This is how kids learn to assess risk and push their boundaries. Without this opportunity, however, kids learn to fear risk.

I can’t tell you how many kids tell me that tree climbing is “dangerous” and riding a bike down a steep hill is too scary. Kids need to learn how to assess and manage their limits, and free play is the best way to do that.

They lag in gross and fine motor skills.

Allow me to be the first to admit they I love team sports. I think kids learn a lot from being on a team. If you want them to develop their gross and fine motor skills, you have to give them the opportunity to do things like swing, jump from swings, climb rocks, and walk on fallen tree trunks. Childhood is about engaging all of the senses and muscles, not just kicking a ball from one end of the field to the other.

They lack sophisticated social skills.

When engaged in child-directed play, kids learn to speak up (assertiveness skills), work together, manage conflict, and generate ideas. They also learn empathy and compassion. Groups of kids will work through obstacles. There might be tears. There might even be raised voices. But they will work it out so that they get back to the business of having fun together.

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When kids lack this time to interact without the watchful eye (and constant intervention) of an adult, they struggle to learn these important social skills.

They are less independent.

One of the biggest complaints I hear is that kids are “bored” when their time isn’t scheduled. It’s shame that many kids don’t know how to handle boredom because boredom can lead to wonderful ideas.

Playful kids know how to handle boredom. While some might cuddle up with a good book, others might invent something new or play alone for a while. Whatever they do to cure their boredom, they learn to relax and enjoy downtime. There will always be periods of boredom in life. Knowing what to do with those moments is important.

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My husband recently found himself stuck at an airport because of a six-hour delay. He didn’t fret too much, though. He pulled his book out of his bag and passed the time with some interesting characters … a skill he likely picked up during those “boring” childhood moments.

What do you think?

5 Things Kids Lose When They Don’t Have Time for Free Play

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about helping parents enjoy the ride, she provides parent education and simple strategies to take t ... More

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