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How Uninstructed Play Helps Your Child Develop

Free Play

From stressed-out office workers scribbling into coloring books to anxiety-prone college kids squeezing a fistful of play-dough, the benefits of play are now recommended for all ages. But while adults are seemingly goofing off, it seems that more and more academic demands are placed on the shoulders of children—and parents should be concerned about these global trends. Playtime is important; it is an important way for children to learn and acquire lifelong skills.

“Play is an integral part of developing a child physically and cognitively, as well as socially and emotionally” says Nicole Bush, a pediatric occupational therapist at OASIS International Hospital. “People tend to focus on their child’s success in academics. Although this is very important, this alone will not allow for development of the whole child,” she cautions.

The benefits

Play affects all areas of the brain. On a physical level, play develops the cerebellum, which controls balance and coordination. Gross motor skills and fine motor skills are also skills that are honed through creative movement. Play also helps develop the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for more executive functions, like problem solving and planning.

It is the latter aspect of play that is particularly of interest. Through play, children learn how to resolve conflicts, negotiate, share, take risks and use their imagination. They learn how to express their own needs while listening to others. They also practice regulating their emotions (who likes to lose?) and understand how to read others though body language and facial responses. Plus—play is just plain fun.

Type of play

“The best type of play is unstructured and has very few, if any, rules,” says Bush. “If the play is too structured, the child is only passively engaged and is unable to interact creatively.” Children should have to use their imaginations to further play—and they should be able to make real decisions during playtime.Unstructured play comes in many guises. Outdoor play obviously is wonderful for boosting physical strength, balance and coordination—encourage your child to run, jump, swing, skip, climb and play tag, suggests Bush.

Playing pretend boosts creativity and focus; children can “play pretend” within groups, which increases their social skills, or on their own. Sensory-rich play, using squishy balls, sand, paints, water toys, slides, swings, or play dough, helps “stimulate and refine the use of their senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste,” says Bush.

Rule-based games, of course, have their uses, especially when it comes to interpersonal skills “like resolving conflict, turn taking, and developing logical strategies,” adds Bush.

How much is enough?

In these overscheduled times, very few speak of “too much” play—instead, try to limit the amount of time devoted to television and screen-based games. “Limiting this type of play is critical,” says Bush. “Some media has little to no enrichment and promotes sedentary patterns. Overuse of media can contribute to decreased attention, increased anxiety, poor posture, sleep difficulties and many others.”

Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that caregivers limit media to less than one hour for preschoolers; those of school-aged children should make sure that digital consumption doesn’t interfere with healthy patterns of sleep or play.

The power of play

For parent and child, so much of the day is devoted to school, work and community obligations, and to Bush, this state of affairs is exactly why we need play. “We need unstructured free time to explore, make decisions, make mistakes, and develop into well-rounded individuals,” she explains. The creative spirit honed through play serves us as we go back into the classroom or office—bringing a sense of, well, fun into an otherwise busy day.

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