The mental health benefits of unstructured play for young children

In this podcast (#490) and blog, I talk about how less free, unstructured playtime affects children’s mental health, and what we can do to improve our children’s mental resilience through encouraging free play. This is part of my summer series on brain-building activities you can do with your children to help them build up their mental resilience and manage their mental health while having fun. 

Free playtime involves allowing your children to play without adult guidance. It is critical for your child’s development because it helps them develop their decision-making and problem-solving skills. This is different from playtime that encourages a child to just explore their physical environment. Free play encourages a child to also explore their motor skills, their language skills, their organizational and logic skills, and their collaborative and communicative skills—the list goes on.  

Not only is free playtime great for a child’s development, but it is also helps improve mental health.  As children engage in free play, they learn how to engage with their environment and figure out their perception of the world. No wonder playtime for children is recognized by the UN as a basic human right! 

Unfortunately, many children today do not get enough free playtime. Lifestyle changes and other societal factors have restricted many children’s access to free, unstructured playtime (play without adult supervision or guidance), which can and does impact their ability to develop their own skill set, identity and independence, all of which can affect their mental and physical development and ability to manage their wellbeing as adults. "As a society, we've started to favor greater structure instead of letting kids just be," says Dr. Murray, pediatrician and lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics' The Crucial Role of Recess.  

That is not to say that children should just be allowed to play as much as they want without supervision or guidance. Academic achievement is incredibly important, as well as structured play, but we must not be too quick to diminish the vital importance that unstructured time and free play has for children. It is vital that they have both: free playtime and structure. There are strong correlations between children who grew up with more free play and emotional and mental wellbeing.  

Thankfully, there are ways we can encourage our children to engage in more free play, especially over the summer. Thisbegins with working on ourselves as parents and guardians. We have to reframe how we define setting our children up for success, which means taking a more holistic and well-rounded approach to their mental and physical development. Just putting all our effort as parents into focusing on academic achievement can be harmful to their overall growth and wellbeing. 

You are not a “bad parent” if you encourage free play instead of just homework and extracurriculars in a balanced way; you don’t have to schedule every moment of your child’s day. You can and should encourage them to spend some time daily in open-ended with simple toys (or even random objects like tupperware, boxes, or utensils). One of the best ways to do this is to look at the structure of your child’s day and evaluate how to incorporate more balance into their schedule. Optimally, you want to incorporate around 2 to 3 hours a day of free, unstructured play, either spread across the day or in clusters. This should, ideally, happen in a 3:1 ratio – 3 free play activities for one enrichment-focused activity.  

It is important to remember that, when encouraging your child to engage in free play, you should be involved as little as possible. When adults do the directing, children tend follow their guidelines and have less opportunity to learn skills of self-advocacy, conflict resolution, and negotiation. You can, however, help them get used to the idea of playing without structure or guidance by starting off the activity. 

Of course, your child’s safety is paramount, so make sure that their environment is suitable for free play. You can also stay in the room and work on other tasks, as long as you try to avoid guiding their playtime. 

Your child may not know what exactly they want to do at first, and this is okay. The more free play that they have, the more likely they are to make active decisions and learn what kind of activities they want to do. Remember, this is a great opportunity for them to start exploring their interests and learning what they like and what they don’t like.  

If you feel that your child’s schedule does not allow for free play, try tosee what changes you can make so that they have this time to learn and grow. Reduce what extracurricular activities you can; remember that you do not have to fill every moment of their day. Children today are actually busier than they have been in the past and it is impacting their health and wellbeing. Free play is not just a nice thing to do with your child; it is essential to their development.  

For more on the mental benefits of free playtime, listen to my podcast (episode #490). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).     

Preorder my new book  How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess before August 7th, 2023 to receive exclusive bonuses, including access to a 1-hour webinar + Q&A session on back-to-school tips and strategies to help your child mentally prepare for the year ahead! You can preorder here.   

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This podcast is sponsored by:   

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Podcast Highlights

1:50 What free play is & why it is important  

6:00 How keeping our children busy affects their wellbeing & growth  

11:00 Ways to encourage free play

14:20 What happens when you schedule every moment of your child’s day 

17:25 The importance of encouraging balance in your child’s life 

22:32 Why we need to change the way we understand setting our child up for success 

26:10, 31:44 How to incorporate more free play in your child’s day 

39:20 Why we shouldn’t just focus on our child’s academic achievement  

This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.  

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