This afternoon, during my usual Sunday game of golf (where I did not play particularly well by the way), a member of my foursome and parent of a ten and seven year old, Ron Thurber, reminded me of the importance of unstructured play for children.
There is a great deal of research in the neuroscience community on the value of unstructured play. To get you started though, recall how you played after school when you were young. I remember a day after a first snow storm when a group of us in my neighborhood decided to build an igloo. We spent hours trying to figure out how to do it, with a few children alternately serving as the leaders, providing suggestions for how to proceed. I suggested we should make a big pile of snow and hollow it out. We tried that and of course our igloo collapsed. Another child thought he remembered from school that you have to make bricks out of snow. We then began that project by piling snow into shoe boxes and trying to pack them down. Once removed from the shoe boxes, our flimsy bricks did not hold together very well. One among us finally suggested we use water to turn the snow bricks into ice bricks. We discovered we were really onto something and spent the rest of that day, and two additional days after school, making our bricks and constructing our igloo. For those three afternoons, without an adult in sight, we all worked cooperatively toward a single goal without any fighting or competition. In the end, we were so proud of our igloo we invited our parents in a for a visit.
In 2008, NPR interviewers asked three researchers for suggestions to guide parents with ideas for unstructured play that fosters executive function and leadership skills. The researchers they spoke with were Deborah Leong, professor of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver, Elena Bodrova, senior researcher with Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, and Laura Berk, professor of psychology at Illinois State University.
Here were their suggestions for different age groups:
Pre-Schoolers - Joint Storybook Reading: "Reading storybooks with preschoolers promotes self-regulation, not just because it fosters language development, but because children's stories are filled with characters who model effective self-regulatory strategies"
Early School Age - Simon Says: "Simon Says is a game that requires children to inhibit themselves. You have to think and not do something, which helps to build self-regulation."
Complex Imaginative Play: "This is play where your child plans scenarios and enacts those scenarios for a fair amount of time, a half-hour at a minimum, though longer is better. Sustained play that last for hours is best. Realistic props are good for very young children, but otherwise encourage kids to use symbolic props that they create and make through their imaginations." For example, a stick becomes a sword or a can becomes a phone.
Pre-teen and Teen Activities That Require Planning: "Games with directions, patterns for construction, recipes for cooking, for instance." And remember, that group activities allow leaders to emerge and helps the others understand the value of cooperative effort, striving toward a single goal.
Sending children off to play used to be a "break" — for everyone, the kids and their parents. But now, parents feel compelled to organize every second of their children's play time, structuring a child's time through afterschool classes and activities or by purchasing things like elaborate play objects, princess dresses and video games. Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, says play has become stressful and expensive, focused, as never before, on things. In an NPR interview awhile back he said, "It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys. Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object." A few years ago, Chudacoff published a history of child's play in which he argues that for most of human history what children did when they played was roam an area in large or small groups, with older children supervising the younger ones. The main activity they engaged in was freewheeling imaginative play. "They were pirates and princesses, aristocrats and action heroes...Basically", says Chudacoff, "they spent most of their time doing what looked like nothing much at all."
Dr. Adele Diamond, whose research I have referred to often, stated in the same interview, "I think a lot of kids get diagnosed with ADHD now, not all but many just because they never learned how to exercise self-control, self-regulation, the executive functions early," she says. Dr, Diamond is a leading proponent of unstructured play to help children develop a range of probem-solving, self-regulation and leadership skills.
Tip #42 An excellent way to provide opportunities for your child to work well with others, develop both leadership and problem-solving skills as well as self discipline is to practice it through imaginative and unstructred play in groups where adults don't interfere. Thank You, Ron!