Early Childhood — 13 March 2009
Old-Fashioned Play: Why It’s Important

How much time do your kids have for unstructured play? You know, the old-fashioned kind, where time and space are open and you get to do whatever you think of that happens to strike your fancy. In generations past, unstructured play constituted almost all the leisure time of children. Today, most kids’ after-school time is filled with scheduled activities: sports, ballet, art classes – everything but time and space itself.

Empty time and space are essential for children if we want them to be happy and creative. It’s in the gaps between the structures of our lives where we find refreshment, insight and inspiration. Our originality is rooted in that place, and we can only access it in “downtime”. Kids need downtime even more than adults.

A child who doesn’t get to just kick back and be silly, or kick back and pretend, or kick back and contemplate, is a kid in danger of becoming robotic, of living life in a programmed way instead of being the doer and creator of his own story. Such a child may grow up to be “successful”, but at what cost? Is having a star ballerina or gymnast in the family as important as having a son or daughter who lives genuine fulfillment and happiness, defined on their own terms?

There’s nothing wrong in giving your kid piano or dancing lessons, or signing them up for sports. But when those activities consume most nights in the week, or exhaust the energy of your little one, something is out of balance. If your child doesn’t have at least an hour each day to do whatever she likes by herself, something essential is missing in her life.

Unstructured playtime can take place alone or with other kids, but at least some play time, some days a week, should include quiet time where your child can be alone – imagining, drawing, humming, climbing, swinging, pretending, playing with the dog, or following any other whim without the distraction of others.

During play time, make materials available to the kids to inspire creative or reflective activities. Play materials should include things like colored markers, scissors, paper, pencils and pens, paints, modeling clay, pipe cleaners, blocks, Lego, marbles, books, and clothes for playing “dress-up.” Old-fashioned play props like these should never have gone out of fashion, as they are important for culturing the originality and creativity of every child.

Give your child more downtime (with the TV turned off), and you’ll see him start to learn to make his own fun. It’s amazing the things kids can turn into a toy or a game if we give them the room and the time to imagine in. Unstructured free time for kids is not only essential to their sense of well-being and happiness during childhood, it is vital for their development into independent, thinking, original adults.

Carve out free space and free time for your child at home, and you’ll be delighted at the wonders that emerge. It’s there inside each young person, like a butterfly in a cocoon, just waiting for the right climate to draw it out. All you have to do is create an allowing environment, free up their schedule and make space for it to happen.

Kytka Hilmar-Jezek

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Kytka Hilmar-Jezek

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