In these times when structured programs and expert instruction are available for everything, people can come to believe that allowing kids an open schedule with plenty of free play will keep them from future success. How, they may ask, will kids be able to structure their lives if they just run around and play all the time?
Thanks to a recent study, we have the beginnings of a scientific answer. The University of Colorado Boulder found that the less time kids spent in structured activities, the better they were at setting and achieving their own goals. While this may cause some people to do a double take, if we put aside societal messages about kids and achievement and reconnect with our common sense, the results become completely unsurprising.
After all, what do kids do when left alone to play? They imagine, they ponder, and they figure stuff out. When my daughters were young children, they had a game called Little People Land. In this elaborate set-up, they created a community complete with government, services, and recreation for its citizens. Little People Land was generally a happy place, but sometimes problems arose and had to be addressed. In the game of Little People Land, the players processed all facets of life as they observed them. It was a place to practice, if you will, being grown-ups while still relishing the joys of childhood.
When left to their own devices, kids become very good at using their time constructively. They decide, for example, when to leave Little People Land for lunch, or physical activity outdoors. They decide whether to read a book, and for how long, or whether writing or drawing or building or baking should be on the day’s agenda instead. When they’re in an unsupervised game with other kids, they negotiate the rules and structure. Those of us who’ve observed kids living this way know that they don’t just wander aimlessly through life. Goal setting and organizational skills are part of the vast and valuable skill set they develop.
Letting kids play can make life easier for parents in the long term, too. Now that my kids are teens, they have no problem being in charge of their lives. They balance complicated schedules which involve college classes, jobs, volunteer positions, and performances. How much executive function does it take to start a theater company, for instance, as one daughter has done? Choosing plays, scheduling auditions, casting, creating rehearsal schedules, renting a theater, putting together costumes, learning lines, directing the play, and getting the word out to the public – yeah, it takes quite a lot.
I’m glad that science is validating the value of unstructured time for kids, but I didn’t need a study to know that those years in Little People Land were well spent. Play on.
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