The Value of Unstructured Play

By Jen Taylor | Children 0-5

Jan 12

Play.”

That was the answer my three year old son gave when I asked the same question I ask every Friday afternoon.  The question is, “What do you want to do this weekend?

Now, sometimes, my children will say “go to the beach” or “go hiking.”   We are an extremely active family and are usually doing something pretty adventurous.  They have said, “go on a road trip” or even random wish list things like “ride in a boat” or “go on an airplane.”

And my son was not alone.  When I asked his twin brother and his four year old sister, they both nodded in agreement.

We just want to play.”

A Weekend of “Just Play”

So that is exactly what we did last weekend.  We stayed at home for basically the whole weekend (minus one short trip to the craft store for some art supplies for both me and them) and they got to play.   Now, three toddlers playing together for an entire weekend is actually pretty relaxing for this mama!

(FINALLY…it took a lot of work to get them to this point).

Aside from the occasional fights over toys or the tears about a minor boo-boo, it was actually pretty entertaining to watch them just play.  And I can promise you that I had NOTHING to do with their plans and am not making this stuff up.

“Just play” turned out to include some of the following activities (named by them):

Hatchimal: They took turns hiding under a blanket and being petted and stroked until they “hatched.”

Family: My four year old plays “mom” and one of the boys plays “dad” and the other plays “baby.”  This includes symbolic play of bedtime, mealtimes, etc.  This one is especially fun because they actually change their voices to act out the roles.  (Be prepared to see yourself reflected…you may or may not like what you see).

School:  I think this one is a favorite for all kids, but they included rehearsals of all the activities that are part of their typical day care days (but this time, they get to play the teacher). Lots of singing in this one.

Gymnastics:  Now, they do not actually KNOW gymnastics, but they pretended to take lessons and did a lot of forward rolls.  This DID prompt me to show them my one and only gymnastic skill- a cartwheel.  For toddlers (and my skeptical husband who thought I was too old to cartwheel), this was pretty impressive.

Artwork:  During our one excursion to the local craft store, I got them each a poster board and some foam stars and they came home and made “boards.”  We played Moana and Frozen soundtracks on my beloved Sonos (I’m up to three now) and they were sprawled out in the hallway making scribbles and art.  Upon completion, they each wanted them hung on their bedroom doors.

**This gave me time to work on my own art project- A DIY board to display all the hikes that my adventurous little toddlers are completing in Hawaii.

 

Jumping into the “Pool”: On the back patio, they took turns jumping off a little metal table that I have and into “the pool” (which was just the grass).  I don’t even know all the details of this one, but it included a lot of giggling so it was obviously pretty fun.

And those were just the ones that I witnessed or could overhear.  Mostly, they played upstairs.  This involved some jumping on (and off) the bed, lots of running and quite a huge mess.  No one was injured and  nothing was broken so we call that a success!

Lessons from Unstructured Play

Now, my children are not special.  What they did this past weekend is what all children love to do.  Play is the language of children.  This is not something special that I taught them because I am a play therapist.  But, to have the opportunity to play WITHOUT ADULTS is some what of a privilege these days.

Here’s what that unstructured play does for them:

Conflict Resolution Skills:

This skill is the most critical and the hardest to “butt out of” as an adult.  Through unstructured play, they negotiated roles of who was going to be what, figured out the storylines and came up with plans that they all enjoyed.

But not all the time…

They are toddlers, remember? Of course there were times that someone came down and complained to me, “Jackson did this” or “Sarah, won’t let me do that.”

TIP:  Reflect the feeling but do not solve the problem.

I would typically say, “You’re mad at Sarah because she won’t let you play with the babydoll.  Did you tell Sarah you were mad?” And he would say no and then I could hear him say, “I’M MAD AT YOU SA-YAH.”   Sometimes that means that she works it out with him right then and other times it means that they stop playing together for a little while.   But, they worked it out nonetheless.

Mastery Skills:

Rehearsing and acting out the events that occur in our family routine and in their school routine all leads to better mastery of those skills.  Because they get to have more control (and get to have the power of being the authority figure for a change), they can try on new roles and attitudes in a safe and developmentally appropriate way.  They want to succeed and this was another chance for them to practice and rehearse the things that they are learning.

TIP: Reflect the behavior without always becoming the teacher again yourself.

This might sound like, “You love singing about the months of the year.  You’re getting a lot of practice in today.” But I would not say “You missed October again.”  Not in this moment.  We have plenty of opportunities to practice getting this 100% correct.  But when they are playing out mastery skills themselves, it is more important that they practice the PROCESS rather than just be reminded of the OUTCOME.

Creativity and Problem Solving:

Throughout the weekend, there were plenty of things that just didn’t work out.  Cartwheels, for example, are just not something that they are capable of at this time.  But, they found plenty of ways to make their imaginary gymnastics class more exciting.  This included the use of pillows to take their forward rolls to another level.  (And, from what I could tell from downstairs…probably more jumping on and off the beds).

Yes, of course, my toddlers come to me when they have a problem.  “This is not working. Can you fix it?”  Any many times, they actually do need my help.  But MORE times, they don’t.

TIP: Avoid rushing in with possible solutions to a problem. 

Usually, I would start by saying, “Hmm.  I wonder what you think needs to happen here.”   And usually they have an idea that we can try.  It might not work (and I may know that going in), but during unstructured play time, I would usually refer problem solving back to them.  And if their idea doesn’t work…I wouldn’t offer the solution.  Back to “Hmm…that didn’t work out how you wanted it.”

Inevitably, they either find a solution that does work or leave it for a while and go do something else. But the process of solving problems is both incredibly important for the development of critical thinking skills and for building self-esteem.  And don’t think that this encourages quitting.  It actually promotes the concept of frustration tolerance because when you are struggling with solving a problem, you actually need to try a few things, take a break and think about it more, come back and try some more, etc.

And a host of other social-emotional skills are learned

The list goes on and on.  Children practice communication skills through unstructured play. They practice motor skills (both fine and gross motor skills).   They practice this attachment concept called  “rupture and repair.”  That’s when their relationship is going well and then something happens – the rupture– (like someone gets mad and hits someone) and then they fix it –the repair– (like offering an apology or a hug).

We practiced those skills A LOT this weekend.

What do you want to do THIS weekend?

And on Friday, I ask again, “What do you want to do this weekend?”

And my typically adventurous family says,

Go hiking.”

So that is what we will be out doing this weekend.  And maybe go to the beach.  And, because they are kids, they continue to use their imagination to pretend they are flying down the mountain like PJ Masks.

And we will develop other skills, like doing hard things and appreciating the awesomeness of nature.  A balance between structured and unstructured play is always my goal.

What are your plans?  Do they include time for unstructured play?

Want tips on how to play WITH your child?  Read about the power of a 30 minute play session with you and your child here.

About the Author

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

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