Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What do children learn from unstructured play? By Tamara Treviranus

At LifeWays, we feel that it is best for young children to have a home like environment (as opposed to an academic setting), and for the children to be able to experience plenty of unstructured play time, with a  significant portion of that time spent in a natural outdoor environment.   We know that early academics are not the best use of a young child’s time and that now is the time in their development to focus on relationships, learning about how the world works, and playing.  Through some recent continued education reading, I have gained a better understanding of not only what unstructured and outdoor play are not ( ie early academics), but what developmental qualities they allow a young child to acquire.  Not only is this type of play very joyful for the kids and you can really see them thrive, it also gives them the opportunity to develop executive function skills, one of them being self regulation. 

Executive function has a number of elements. It includes using problem solving strategies, and performing tasks to carry out decisions.  I have noticed that when children play very elaborate games, the majority of the time is spent in the set up or planning of how the game will go, what they will use, etc.  That time spent playing freely is an exercise in executive function. Have you ever noticed your children talking to themselves while they are playing?  This is called private speech and it helps the children with their self regulation.  I have noticed children correcting the behavior of a pretend person or even playing the role of someone else correcting them during private speech.  When children have these skills it is a good predictor of success later in life. Self regulation is one the most important components of executive function — the ability for kids to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and have self discipline. 

Opportunities for free play are undoubtedly diminishing.  Parents are pressured to provide as many structured opportunities as possible ( ballet class, soccer, swim lessons, trips to museums). Children watch much more TV and play video games now than in the past.  And while children are in a traditional preschool or kindergarten setting, there is very little time for free play as they are moved through structured activities, sometimes as frequently as every 15 minutes.   All of these factors combined create a situation where it is possible that a child has never been given the opportunity to really develop self regulation skills.  Everything is planned for them.  Everything has a time limit.  They have not had the opportunity to make decisions around play or in what fashion they are going to interact with their peers. .  They grow into a situation where adults responsible for their care and for teaching them are pressured to entertain them and focus on discipline issues in part caused by poor self regulation abilities.
I am thankful that there is a place such as LifeWays for children to be given the opportunity to develop these essential life skills.

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