Why You Should Add Free Play Into Your Kid’s Schedule
I know I’m not alone when I say my world has changed quite a bit over the last few weeks. My kitchen table has become my office, my home has become my world, a walk to the edge of my neighborhood feels like an adventure to the ends of the earth (should I bring my passport?). And one more thing… like many of you, I became my kids’ (5-year-old Ben and 2.5-year-old Juliet) teacher and full-time caretaker – even while I’m working full-time.
I’ve always had an appreciation for my children’s teachers and caregivers. They allow me to do what I love to do every day as they care for, inspire and teach my children in creative and skilled ways. But let me tell you – my appreciation has grown exponentially in light of the coronavirus crisis.
I am Kiddie Academy’s Director of Content Marketing, but I’m also a Kiddie Academy parent. Ben has been enrolled at Kiddie Academy during this school year. Even though I work for an educational child care provider, I’m not a teacher by trade. As I clumsily attempted to pick up this new role as teacher, it was easy for me to fall into a rut of feeling like I’m not doing enough to help my kids continue learning while we’re at home with them (while I am also trying to do my paid job). But what I found (and what I’m hoping you’ll take away) is that not all learning is structured and formulaic. When I stood back and looked at the activities I engaged in with the kids while I was simultaneously working, I remembered there is great value to free play – and there are a million and one opportunities for kids to learn through these impromptu experiences. Here are some of my favorite tips and bits of wisdom about free play:
The research about play is compelling.
There are no shortage of studies, facts and figures about the importance of play for young children, and how time spent in a state of play is dwindling. Even if you haven’t kept up with the science behind the importance of free play, surely you’ve seen the internet memes poking fun at the ease and simplicity of our generation’s idea of play compared with kids’ screen-focused and complicated ideas of play today.
In a 2018 report, the American Academy of Pediatrics claimed, among many things, that play can help young kids cope with toxic stress and gives them the skills they need to learn how to learn. Play is even more effective when children are given some control over the process. And if that’s not good news for busy parents – that you are actually empowered to let your kids do it themselves – then I don’t know what is!
Free play in early childhood education remains as a key factor to a child’s learning process and brain development. Play is the most important activity for a child, and through play a child develops social, emotional and cognitive skills. A child is able to develop their personality traits during free play. They will also learn how to communicate with their friends, to act or react in different situations, and to respect some rules. Given the aforementioned benefits of free play, and how much children learn and enjoy it, free play should always be well balanced with structured activities either at home or in a preschool program. -Richard Peterson, Chief Academics Officer, Kiddie Academy Educational Child Care
Loose Parts Play
The concept of Loose Parts Play is one of my favorite in early childhood education. It’s basically exactly what it sounds like – random, kid-safe stuff you collect from around the house and let kids go crazy! ”Loose parts allows for open-ended learning that is not adult-directed,” says Joy Turner, Vice President of Education for Kiddie Academy. ”What a child creates today with the loose part materials can be used again and they create something totally different tomorrow. This type of open-ended play boosts self-confidence – since there is no right or wrong answer.”
You’ll be surprised what they build, create and design. The other day, my son built a tractor out of a box of diapers, a box of wipes, some colorful bins and a blanket. That takes way more creativity than recreating a tractor from a picture on the side of a box of building blocks. He also builds drum sets out of random toys and household items – even though he has a real drum set. Sometimes I think the process of building the drum set is more exciting for him than actually playing it!
It’s OK to just observe most of the time.
In fact, jumping in too soon while your child is engaged in free play can prevent them from learning from mistakes and figuring things out on their own. I think about my son playing with his marble run set – creating different structures and paths for marbles to move through a track. At first, he wasn’t sure how to fit the pieces together and how to make paths that worked with gravity to move the marbles along. If I would have always built the structures for him, he never would have created some impressive marble runs – and experienced the thrill of success for doing it on his own.
Don’t try too hard.
Play should be spontaneous, not necessarily scheduled and definitely not forced. Opportunities for play often present themselves under unexpected circumstances. Just the other day, I was outside pulling weeds from our garden and my kids came over to help. We had a great time talking about the plants that were starting to re-grow after the winter and pointing out other details we found in nature. I couldn’t have scripted that moment if I tried – but it came about effortlessly when I wasn’t overthinking.
So cut yourself some slack, stay-at-home-full-time-working-educator-parent. You’re doing the very best you can, and the kids are going to be alright.