There is no more typical activity of childhood than playing – freely and independently. For different children, that might mean acting out make-believe stories, climbing trees, dressing up or creating their own artwork. Kids find myriad ways of entertaining themselves whenever they are unsupervised. This so-called “free play” has been the purview of children since the world began. Left to their own devices, kids play.
In our culture, free play has suffered a fall from grace. We’ve all heard of the amazing successes of athletes who excelled because they gave up their childhood for a singular focus on a sport (think Tiger Woods or Serena Williams). Those stories make the average parent think that their children need similar discipline – either athletically or academically. In other cases, the parents are too busy to make space in their lives for their children and so encourage video games or organized sports to fill their kids’ time. For these and other reasons, play time has seen a fast decline.
But research shows that free play is one of the best opportunities you can give your child! Study after study has demonstrated the powerful benefits of playing.
- Actively playing develops coordination and motor skills. It also reduces the risk of child obesity by 42% and results in a lower body mass index. Some experts have correlated the decline of active playtime with the increase in obesity.
- Playing develops a child’s intellect. Free play is necessary for healthy brain development. Play builds creative thinking and executive function skills. Building or drawing requires counting, classifying, thinking creatively and finding patterns. As they dramatize their stories, children practice organization and vocabulary.
- Free play teaches social skills. When they play, younger children often create and explore a world where they practice adult roles. This gives them experience with how situations can be handled and improves their social stability. When playing with others, they learn to accommodate the feelings and opinions of other children, negotiating with one another to determine the direction of play. (And when that doesn’t work and the play time ends in anger and frustration, they learn the limits of interacting with others!)
- Playing teaches emotional skills. Children at play often imagine a frightening situation in a controlled environment. Think of how much kids love to be tossed into the air or chased by a “monster”. The thrill of the moment triggers a “fight or flight” reaction, but because the danger is simulated, it comes without the stress hormone (cortisol) making the event fearful. Researchers believe this gives children a useful way to practice handling fear and danger. Similarly, free play helps kids, especially boys, distinguish aggression from anger and to control their emotions (so that they can continue to play).
- Free play teaches independence. When play is self-directed by children, they learn decision-making skills, discover their own interests and engage in their own passions. However, when it is controlled by adults, children abide by the adult rules and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly creativity, leadership and group skills. (Just remember, allowing children to play on their own doesn’t mean that they’re not supervised. You can and should keep an eye on them, especially if they’re playing outside.)
If your children are in a conventional school, you shouldn’t rely on recess as your children’s play time. The length of school recess may be too short to count as free play. That is, if your kids’ school has recess periods. Recess is rarely mandated at the state level and some schools have eliminated it altogether. In many other cases, it is often a very structured event without much free play time allowed.
What this all amounts to is that researchers are catching up to a basic fact that home educators have known for a long time.
- Kids are meant to have unstructured time to play and
- playing is part of their education.
It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.
Leo Buscaglia, author, speaker, professor
In playtime, you are allowing your children to round out their education. Remember that academics are only one aspect of education and there are many more subjects that can’t be taught through books that children also need to learn. Free play time gives them the opportunity to learn many of those lessons.
As a homeschooler, you can set aside time for your children to grow and develop through free play. Make a point to block some time out of your busy schedule to give them those opportunities. The time they spend playing is critical to their development, requires little on your part and is easy on your budget! What else could you ask for?
Mike is a co-founder of Homeschool Awakening where he devised the HEART diagnostic and writes a lot. A father of 5 and homeschooling for more than 15 years, he has been in the trenches and understands the thrills and challenges. When he is not writing, he is typically on an adventure with his family.
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