The Awesome Benefits of Unstructured Playtime

Children need to play — it’s as essential to their DNA as breathing. Furthermore, the activity benefits your little ones in numerous ways.

In today’s society, parents too often tend to structure every moment of their child’s day. They hustle them from school to soccer practice to piano lessons with nary a breath in between. Read on to discover why you need to give your little one unstructured time if you want them to properly develop physically, mentally and emotionally.

Play Helps Build Healthy Bodies

Did you know that nearly one-fifth of American children qualify as obese? That figure doesn’t include the number who are overweight. Overweight and obese children tend to remain so as adults, and these conditions put a significant strain on their bodies.

Unstructured play empowers your child to run, skip and jump. It provides time for them to use their muscles in a way that feels natural. They can challenge their physical limits in a manner they might feel reticent to try on the soccer field in front of their peers — it’s embarrassing to try to turn a cartwheel in front of your friends and fall. Feeling abashed may lead some to shy away from physical challenges, but unstructured time enables them to build this skill.

Play Develops Appropriate Social Skills

You might understand the developmental milestones your child needs to meet physically, even academically. However, do you know there’s a timeline for when they should develop particular social skills? For example, by the time your little one reaches the age of five or six, they should know how to apologize when they hurt somebody’s feelings.

Unstructured play enables your child to develop their social skills in seven key areas. They learn how to greet their peers and actively listen and participate in conversations. They grow their problem-solving and conflict-resolutions skills when they disagree with a friend on the rules of a game. They learn to read and understand social cues — and they learn how to preview their audience. This skill benefits them when they enter the classroom, as they’re more likely to address their teacher and other adults respectfully, minimizing the need for behavioral interventions.

Play Bolsters Mental and Emotional Health

Did you know that more children have psychiatric disorders than cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined? While you might think, “Fine, I’d rather my child have a mental illness rather than a catastrophic one,” you’re downplaying the severity of these conditions. These diseases can impact the entire trajectory of your child’s school and, eventually, career. Additionally, suicide rates continue to soar, and deaths from this cause often occur in those with mental health woes.

People of all ages need downtime to protect their psychological health. When your child feels pressured to adhere to an inflexible schedule, they may rebel against the rigidity of these demands. Gregarious children might act out through misbehavior. More introverted types could internalize their emotions and grow depressed. If you want your child to maintain a healthy emotional outlook and prevent mental illness, give them a break. If you must schedule everything, put the unstructured time in their planners.

Play Boosts Classroom Performance

Imagine you had to work a 10-hour day without a single break. Would your productivity hit its peak at 3 pm, or would you be ready to meltdown? If you struggle to manage your behavior and emotions without so much as 15 minutes to take a walk or grab a snack, how do you think your child feels? Children have shorter attention spans than adults and denying them downtime impacts their attitude and performance more significantly than it does your peers.

Sadly, many schools, in a race to improve test scores, have eliminated recess. While research indicates they’re unwise for doing so, as a parent, you need to compensate for this missing time. If your child’s after-school activities consist of nothing but structured time, they’ll seek ways to find relief through alternate means — even if it means acting out. As one child describes, “I get this feeling in my legs when they want to run…and when that feeling moves up to my head, I can’t remember what the rules are.”

Play Gives You Time to Bond

If you’re like many parents, you probably crave more time with your little one. Unstructured play can benefit you both physically and psychologically. When you take your kiddo to the playground, for example, you reap the benefits of fresh air and sunshine, too. Plus, you can climb on the monkey bars or go down the slide, boosting your exercise and calorie-burn quotient.

Even if all you do is play dolls with your little one, you open up time for your child to talk to you about tough issues they may not know how to discuss. It’s challenging to answer the “tell me about your day” question around the dinner table where their siblings can poke fun. However, if you’re enjoying a quiet moment together, they may feel comfortable confiding about the bully who’s making them miserable.

Introduce More Unstructured Play Into Your Child’s Life Today

Your child needs unstructured play for their psychological and physical well-being. Even if you have to write it on the calendar, schedule your little one some downtime today.