Undirected play opens up a new world to children where they can solve problems both imagined and real. Unstructured play drives children to be creative, learn and play at their own pace, and removes some of the stress created by the pressure to follow adult rules.
Vacationing in my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, I have been able to reflect on my own childhood. Journeying on bike rides around my old neighborhood has fostered a nostalgic excitement that I have been eager to share with my son. We pass through the parks where I used to skateboard and play street hockey, and trek through the small, wooded undeveloped plots of land where my friends and I built secret sanctuaries in what we imagined to be the isolated depths of a far away jungle. The smells, the sounds, the feelings; all remain the same and flood my mind with time that was simple and innocent.
At each turn of our holiday I have detailed to my son the adventures, the fun and the boundless opportunities constructed from my youthful mind. I yearn for him to want the same experiences I had growing up – the freedom to explore and learn in his own individual way.
Now that my son is almost five years old, building up to summer I felt pressure to enroll him in sports, camps and structured group activities. Conversations between parents as the school year culminated were filled with schedule-comparing and confirmation that familiar children were going to be sharing in the latest programs that will help prepare them for success at the next level – of sports, of music, of education.
As they discussed their plans, I envisioned arrow-covered, ink-smudged calendars that looked like a game of snakes and ladders with assigned names to the hours of pick up and drop off – a product of extensive precision planning and parenting arithmetic finalized in a solution reminiscent of a chalkboard from Good Will Hunting.
It seemed like everything was being planned for an anticipated greater future purpose. There was no room for living for the day. When would they build that fort? Go skateboarding? Call up their friends when the weather is perfect for a street hockey game before dusk? These days, parents feel that they have no choice but to pack their children’s schedules with adult-driven, supervised activities.
It is my experience that formalizing life has become the norm.
As a new parent, I can see why some are motivated to travel down this path. Having a plan can provide peace of mind to parents. There is always a sense of relief knowing: what your child will be doing; that what they are doing is designed to be beneficial in some respect; and that they will be safe.
But is this the best course for your child? Are they truly experiencing the unencumbered beauty being a child has to offer?
We are currently in an era of parenting that devalues free time. There is a stigma surrounding listless youth and the problems that can arise from the unfilled, unsupervised moments. And this can be stifling to a child. Parents need to find balance between scheduled and unscheduled activities for their children, placing an emphasis on undirected play through personal free playtime.
Undirected play opens up a new world to children where they can solve problems both imagined and real. It breeds collaboration in child-driven scenarios and fosters their imagination. Unstructured play drives children to be creative, learn and play at their own pace, and removes some of the stress created by the pressure to follow adult rules.
Is this easier said than done?
Offering free time to your children can be a challenging undertaking given the influences parents are under through mainstream and social media. We are inundated with messages promoting the newest and most valuable ways to ensure the success of your child. Although these programs hold significance, implementing a more balanced approach that includes traditional methods of play will greatly benefit your child.
Everything doesn’t have to be tangible.
Parents should evaluate their mindset and recognize that although there isn’t a certificate or grade level affixed to an activity, they are being supportive, productive and nurturing in promoting unscheduled, unstructured play. The benefits are boundless.
I am overjoyed to see the qualities in my son that I possessed in my youth – unrepentant creativity and an imagination that allows him to construct the world he wants at any given moment. For this, I am proud. I refuse to subscribe to the idea that if my wife and I don’t enroll our son in everything possible that he will fall behind, suffer,or will be deprived. He needs to embrace the moments of silence and learn how to harness them for his personal growth.
There will be ample time for my son to be scheduled and overworked in the future. For today, he can just be a kid.
This article originally appeared on Maria Shriver.com
Photo credit: Getty Images