Over the past few decades, there has been a rise in the number of children experiencing social, emotional and attentional problems. One of the most potent prevention strategies and remedies is within the reach of every family: Unstructured free play.
Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison wrote, “Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.” And when play happens outdoors in nature, it is even more powerful, both as an antidote to the stress of modern life and as a spur to children discovering their abilities.
It is during unstructured playtime that children consolidate what they are learning and discover who they are and what they are interested in. Parents who want to encourage the development of their child’s gifts, talents and creativity sometimes need to juggle their priorities and make time for play in their children’s lives. All kids need challenge and stimulation—intellectual, physical and social. And they also need time for unstructured play and outdoor activities.
Children’s intelligence and creativity develop when they are exposed to a variety of multisensory stimuli that engage all their senses, and when they have ample opportunities for playful interaction with the world around them. The long-term benefits of multisensory playful exploration include better self-regulation, self-awareness and collaboration skills; greater ownership of their own learning; and a freer imagination.
What should you do–and avoid doing–to ensure your children get the kind of playtime they need to develop their gifts, talents and creativity?
- respond enthusiastically to your child’s curiosity
- make choices
- ensure lots of time in nature
- enjoy time outdoors with your child
- celebrate the wonders of nature
- overschedule your child
- be rigid about schedules
- crowd your child during playtime
- allow unlimited screen time
- rescue kids from boredom
Playful exploration is the first step toward high-level achievement in all fields. It is the wellspring of happy productivity across the lifespan. You are nurturing your child’s passions when you encourage his curiosity, expose him to rich and varied experiences, support the development of his knowledge and skills, and allow him ample time for exploring his interests in (initially) playful ways.
A child who has many interests–or whose parents do–can choose which activities she wants to pursue seriously at any given time. For example, piano and swimming through the winter, and drama and soccer in the summer. If your child wants to participate in more activities than this, look for informal options. Maybe she can arrange a neighborhood softball game with her friends, instead of joining a league.
Children who learn in outdoor classrooms show big improvements in academic achievement, self-esteem, problem solving, creativity and motivation to learn. All children are calmer, more optimistic, more focused, healthier, more creative and more successful at school when they spend time outdoors. Whenever possible, help your child find and explore meadows, woods, swamps, streams, lakes, deserts and oceans. Ask your child to invite a friend on your nature outings.
A great way to ensure your child experiences all the benefits of nature—better health, happier relationships, higher achievement and greater productivity—is to spend time in natural settings with him. Try to find time for a walk—preferably in nature—every day. Even if it is only for 20 minutes, you will experience many benefits, including stress reduction and increased sense of well-being. Whenever possible, eat your meals outside.
Even in the middle of a busy city, you can celebrate the sunrise, the buds beginning to flower, birdsong and the changes of the seasons. If you have access to outdoor space, make it inviting and spend time there with your child. If possible, build a sandbox, a water feature or some kind of swing. Encourage your child to build a play fort or find an outdoor happy place.
Too many kids are juggling too many activities and responsibilities: school, homework, organized sports, various kinds of practice, extra classes and more. Slow it down. Ask your child to choose one or two activities to focus on at a time.
Everyone needs time out from normal routines, including children. Be flexible, occasionally giving your children “mental health days” as needed or let them skip organized activities in favor of reading a book or going on a family outing.
When you need to be nearby, avoid directing your child’s play. Make sure the space is safe and then back away. Keep your eye on him and be available if he needs you, but don’t deprive him of the important learning that happens from making his own fun and from making mistakes.
It is difficult to compete with a flashing, bright screen. And too much time on screens can kill the desire for free play. Most experts agree with the American Pediatric Association’s recommendation that children under age 2 should have no screen time (mobile devices, computers, TV and video games) and that waiting until later is even better.
Kids usually need their parents to set limits on screen time if they are going to have any time available for free play or outdoor exploration. Also try to limit your own technology use while you are with your children.
Children who are left alone long enough to be bored—without the temptations of easy entertainment, such as that provided by technology—will either figure out how they want to spend their time or ask for help. Boredom can be one of the best teachers there is, providing a pathway to reflection and self-discovery.
Sadly, instead of being filled with spontaneous improvisation and discovery, children’s time is increasingly being overscheduled by adults and consumed by electronic devices. This is ramping up kids’ stress levels and depriving them of essential opportunities to develop the skills, habits and attitudes required for high-level achievement and fulfillment over time.
One of the best ways for parents to support their children in discovering their gifts, talents and creativity. And developing these abilities into high-level achievement ensures ample time for unstructured play, especially outdoors. You will almost certainly see benefits from making time for spontaneous play and for enjoying nature in balance with challenge, stimulation and learning opportunities.
Your child’s health, happiness and productivity will increase if you can find this balance. And you might be surprised to find your own health, happiness and creativity increasing as well.