The Importance of Unstructured Play in Early Childhood Development

We explain the ways in which play helps young children develop their social and language skills, as well as motor and cognitive functions. The emphasis here is on unstructured (or free) play.

The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognized play as a right of every child, keeping them free from labour and exploitation and violence, and giving them access to play which enhances their cognitive, physical, social and emotional wellbeing.

We place the emphasis on free play, or child-centered play where they decide what to do according to their own curiosities and desires. This enables them to discover and pursue their own interests while moving at their own pace.

When adults (parents, teachers etc.) dictate the play, then the children are subject to the rules adults set for them. By letting the children play freely, they become creative and develop skills relating to social roles (groups, leadership).

Social Skills

In the first years of their lives, children interact the most with their parents and sometimes with children their own age. When placed in social settings, such as daycare or elementary school, children will learn to build social skills as well as imagination. Typically children repeat behaviours or actions they have seen taken by the adults surrounding them.

As they interact with people their own age, they learn to adjust their behavior accordingly. Through social interaction they learn the different forms of communication including body language and verbal communication. They also learn survival. These skills are best taught earlier in life so the children are conditioned to act accordingly.

Through play, children exercise imagination, which teaches them to realize their thoughts or to express their thoughts to other children. It teaches them to engage with other people. Early in their lives they engage with their parents and then with children their own age.

Free play encourages children to explore their own interests and through this, they grow their skills and abilities.

Communication Skills

Communication is fostered through play as children express their imaginations. They learn to communicate their daydreams/imaginative worlds as they play with other children and take on different roles. They learn to converse with others, to communicate their needs and desires. Additionally, through the games they play, children may learn other communication skills such as writing.

Cognitive development

Play greatly contributes to the development of the brain and a child’s cognitive (thinking) skills as they encounter problems and learn to solve them. They also learn cause and effect through their choices and actions, and this helps them develop problem solving skills for future interactions.

By repeating behavior seen in adults who surround them, children can role play as adults and create new worlds for themselves, in which they will encounter problems to solve. This in turn builds confidence and experiential learning where they learn how to approach the same situation in the future.

Physical/Dexterity/Motor Skills

The physical benefits of play include the development of motor skills such as dexterity as well as muscle strength when playing games and sports, or even playing on monkey bars.

Unstructured play encourages children to engage in their choice of activities, which makes it more fun and adventurous for them. Structured play, such as gym class, puts them at the mercy of adult rules and expectations and takes the fun out of it, thereby decreasing their desire to engage in physical activity.

Emotional Wellbeing

Unstructured/free play also lets the children see that their interests are valued and worthy. When parents or adults join in with this type of play, rather than dictating the type of play, then the children see loving parents, they see that their behavior is okay, creating the very foundation of accepting, loving and enduring relationships.

This enhances the child’s sense of security and self-worth. This is also helpful for parents as they learn who their children truly are and can help them pursue their interests rather than imposing their own wishes upon the child. A lot is expressed through a child’s choice of play style.

Impacts of Decreased Play Time

Unfortunately, time for play, especially free play, is being diminished more and more in school systems. Emphasis is instead placed on academia. Countless psychological studies have proven the advantages that free/unstructured play gives a child, and how it contributes to their social, emotional, physical and cognitive development.

Play time allows for peer-to-peer interaction and enables children to explore. It enables children to bond with others and to think for themselves in a social setting. free play allows children to explore their own interests without forcing upon them our own dreams or aspirations. When we take away their play time, we force upon them adult roles for which they are not yet ready.

Unstructured play enables children to not only engage with others in their imaginative worlds, but also helps the development of their social, communication, cognitive and physical skills.

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