I have spent much of the past five years talking about the importance of unstructured free play. Earlier this spring, this article was released by Pacific Standard Magazine on the value of free play. As one can imagine, it goes about proving once again the multitude of reasons children need free play. I love the study addressed in the article, but I also feel we need to address one important misconception about unstructured play.
Unstructured play without discipline is useless. Unstructured play without form and function is useless. Unstructured play without routine is useless. "But Megan," you'll say, "You said we are supposed to let our kids be more free range. You said we are supposed to let them get muddy, get creative in nature and throw paint on the walls!"
Yes, I have said all of that. I want all children to do those things from time to time. However, all of the mud play and chalk drawing and paint throwing without discipline and structure won't do a child any good. Ultimately all the imaginative ideas generated during those unstructured moments of play won't have a means to come to fruition.
For example, last night my five-year-old son had an idea to build an indoor baseball field that would be made out of rubber. He explained to us that the rubber field comes in pieces and you simple have to put it together like a puzzle. It comes with a rubber ball and bat as well so all the children of our family could play baseball in the living room. Voila! He solved the age old dilemma of not being able to play ball in the house!
This idea arose during free play time with his seven-year-old sister. I told him he should invent the rubber field and sell it so other little boys could enjoy baseball in the house. He was quite pleased with himself. If, however, my husband and I don't provide him with the skills to talk about his idea, draw a picture of it, teach him the patients and fortitude all great inventors must have, what good is it for him to imagine it?
As they grow, kids must be taught skills like time management, money management, basic manners and politeness, how to do chores, the art of eating well, as well as bedtime routines. All of these skills will help them to find the kind of discipline they need to allow their creative and imaginative ideas to develop.
We have all seen the breakdowns, like this one, of the routine lives of famous creative people. Routine is the key word here. All of the creative, outstanding minds of our time have routine. Every day looks roughly the same because they have found a way to reach their maximum potential through a routine. As parents and teachers it is our responsibility to provide our children with a well structured and routine based life. Part of that routine is free play time.
We need to strive for a more balanced parenting approach in which kids are receiving several hours of free play, devoid of screen time, and also receiving a lot of form and structure in their day that will help them to plan their next great invention and feel confident that they can create a great life for themselves.
Before school starts back up, take a look at your family's routine and decide, do we need more form or more freedom?