Our job is not to entertain our children. This took me so long to realize and even still there are days when I feel guilty if my daughter is bored or I haven’t set up some amazing activity for her. But there are so many benefits of unstructured play. Similarly, when I first began teaching my preschool classes I felt like every single minute needed to be scheduled for the children to get maximum benefit of their time with me. The result was a class of tired kids that no longer wanted to listen at the end of the day and an exhausted teacher…me.
Once I made the mindset shift that it was ok for the kids to have plenty of time for unstructured play in whatever way they wanted my classes had the feeling of ease and fun that I was longing for. Are the children still learning? Absolutely, in fact according to a Ted Talk by Dr. Peter Gray, play in childhood is nature’s means of ensuring that children acquire the necessary skills to develop successfully into adulthood.
Our day at preschool is set up in a way that meets each student individually. I no longer have a set
”learning time,” for the entire class instead while the children are freely playing I call them one at a time to work with me which gives me an opportunity to meet each child where they are at academically. The children have no problem stopping mid-play to have my focused attention during this time. In fact, they are usually asking who gets to go first before I am even done setting up. Perhaps it is because they know that they have PLENTY of time to play so they are not worried about that time being taken away from them which brings me back to my point. Their play time is never dictated by me. They have toys, they have costumes, we go outside, there are often things to paint or there is play dough out but I NEVER tell them what they need to be doing during this time. I realize in a larger class setting this may not be feasible but in my small specialty program it works really well. The children are more relaxed and open to learning, the most optimal time to create new pathways in the brain.
During this unstructured time I love seeing where the imaginations of the children take them. Some days they are in dance class, some days they have made a bake shop, and others they are simply working cooperatively on building a home out of blocks for the ponies. I can see creativity, problem solving, team work, social and emotional skills being developed and I watch their self-confidence grow. Unstructured play allows children the freedom to explore, create and discover without predetermined guidelines in place telling how or when to do something.
With people’s busy schedules and long days at formal school there has been a decline in unstructured play, yet more and more we are seeing a need for it. Lack of free play for children can inhibit social and emotional learning, making it harder for children to interact with others leading to anxiety, poor resilience, and reduced self-control. Dr. Peter Gray states that over the last 50 years we have seen a decrease in play and a rise in anxiety and depression in children, and increase in narcissism and a decrease in empathy. Even more unsettling is the statistic that suicide rates in children under the age of 15 have quadrupled with the decrease in play.
So what can we do to facilitate more play? Schedule it in. Resist the urge to squeeze in one more activity especially if your children are in school all day long. This is one of the main reasons we decided to homeschool our daughter. We found that with the long school days and the few extracurricular activities she had, it left very little time for play and to just be a kid. This is another topic entirely, perhaps for another blog at a later date. Regardless of whether your child is in preschool, formal grade school or homeschooled planning unstructured play in your family routine is important for our children’s well-being. Play should not be considered a luxury but a necessity for childhood development.