Bringing Play Back: The Value of Ditching Adult Supervision

It’s the second morning of holiday vacation, and already it’s begun.

“I’m bored,” my middle child fumes, hanging off the furniture in a pile of frustrated girl.

I take a long, bracing sip of my morning coffee.

“Why don’t you all go outside?”

Three heads whip in the direction of the nearest window and then back to me, scanning me from head to toe, looking for obvious signs of illness or mental deficiency.

“Umm… It’s cold out there.”

“There’s nothing to do.”

“I don’t want to.”

I raise an eyebrow, set my cup on the counter, and begin the arduous task of pushing a mass of resistant children’s bodies into outdoor wear that makes them look like miniature human sausages. After the long process of searching and bundling and more complaints than a two-star Amazon review, I watch my daughters milling about outside, making tracks in the snow. My son has disappeared somewhere in the bowels of his room. Two out of three isn’t bad. Now to tackle those dishes.

Five minutes later, I see a tear-streaked face pushed into the window. As I open the door, both girls fall in together, simultaneously shedding clothing that leaves a trail in their wake. They stumble onto the couch, hair mussed from hats and the exertion of getting dressed to spend exactly four-and-a-half minutes outdoors.

“Daddy, there’s nothing to do.”

“I lost my mittens outside. My hands are too cold.”

Great. This is just fantastic. Two more weeks to go. Holed up in this place, we’re all going to kill each other, like a spinoff of The Shining. I shrug and gesture with my hands. “Why don’t you … I don’t know. Play? Don’t you two know how to just play?”

They exchange looks that clearly indicate I’ve gone off the deep end.

“Play what, Dad?”

I pinch the bridge of my nose in frustration. When did parenting become like entertainment operations on a cruise ship, parading a constant stream of organized activities led by an enthusiastic adult? Don’t kids know how to just get down on the floor and play anymore? What the hell have we done wrong?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), unstructured free play is critical for child development. However, research carried out by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates electronics are taking up seven or more hours per day of our children’s time.

 

Given statistics like that, it’s easy to see why kids aren’t playing. They’re too busy staring at screens of all sorts. Computers, televisions, mobile devices, game consoles all offer an endless stream of effortless entertainment that appeals to both parents and kids. The time our kids do spend outdoors is either an organized sports activity, part of an indoor lesson, or an organized event such as music, art, or dance. All of which are … you got it. Structured. With a side order of heavily supervised.

You can see where I’m headed. My kids, your kids – they all need to play. Even when I take them to the park, I’m pressured by the collective guilt of the helicopter crowd, frowning at my lack of intervention and involvement as my daughter navigates the monkey bars or negotiates turns on the swings. They imply that if I’m not on the floor every moment, wrestling and engaging in horseplay or offering guidance and protection, I’m somehow failing to give my kids what they need and they will suffer from my inattention.

But will they?

“Unstructured play (or some available free time in the case of older children and adolescents) is essential to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth.”

-AAP Report

So what is this unstructured play, you ask? Perhaps you’re as confused as my children.

Unstructured play is a set of activities that children get involved in without adults supervising or guiding them. (Collective gasp from the Mommy and Me bunch.) Seriously. Kids are left to their own devices to figure stuff out and have fun. Without adult intervention. It’s like Lord of the Flies, but, hopefully, nobody dies. Come on. A little parenting humor. Lighten up. This is an article about play. We’re having FUN here. F-U-N. Fun.

When children are left to play on their own, they will naturally take the initiative and create activities and stories about the world around them. Sometimes, especially with children past the toddler stage, the most creative play takes place without direct adult supervision. Unstructured free play can happen in many different environments, including indoors with blocks, Legos, manipulative toys, books, and more. The outdoors, with its sticks, dirt, leaves, and rocks, is also great for unstructured play. If you haven’t learned the beauty of what a stick can do for a kid, you’ve yet to experience life. Lightsaber, sword, Bridge to Terabithia. It’s all there, just waiting to be explored.

According to the AAP, there are lots of reasons to incorporate unstructured play into the daily lives of our children:

 

  • Play is important for the healthy development of the brain.
  • Undirected play helps children learn how to work together, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, and learn self-advocacy skills.
  • When play is child-driven, children practice decision-making. They can play at their own pace, discover their interests on their own, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.
  • When play is controlled by adults – such as in organized sports – children have to follow adult rules and concerns (like winning) and lose some of the benefits that play offers them, particularly in developing creativity and leadership and group skills.
  • Play and unscheduled time that allow for interaction with friends are an important part of social-emotional learning.
  • Free, child-driven, creative play has a positive impact on health, reduces pressure and stress, and has a positive effect on behavior as the stress is relieved and they can deal with fears and anxiety through play.
  • Unstructured play is a great way to encourage independence and problem solving.

Sounds pretty great, right? A modern panacea for what ails today’s children! If only I could convince my kids that play was as awesome as it sounded. Or as I remembered it.

“Come on.” I waved my daughters over to the pantry and pulled out the recycling bin. They squealed with delight as I unexpectedly upended it on the floor.

“Make something.” A plethora of lids, plastic bottles and containers, and an assortment of cardboard and paper had spread across the floor like a tidal wave of trash. Two brows furrowed and raised their faces in an appeal to mine.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what do you see? What could you make with this stuff? Go grab some twist ties under the sink or some tape from the desk and create something. Anything. What do you see?”

My seven-year-old daughter pointed to a two-liter drink container, realization dawning across her face. “I see a boat.”

I beamed. My teenage son came ambling by, pushing a mop of hair off his forehead. “What are we seeing?”

He sounded amused. And maybe interested. Holy cow. I backed away quietly from the scene and hid at the other end of the house with my laptop, barely daring to breathe. I heard rustling and banging and voices. I think there was an argument about the buoyancy of plastic versus cardboard, but I’m not sure. Because for once, I wasn’t involved.

We’ve placed entertainment in the hands of our children and given them the message that play will come to them. Then we’ve loaded their closets with toys so specialized and lifelike that imagination isn’t even a prerequisite.

Forty-five minutes later, they’d hunted me down, stomachs rumbling like a savage war party. After lunch, there was more listlessness followed by suggestions that involved television. Or movies. I was adamantly arguing for reading time but the majority was against me. And then, inspiration struck.

“I got it!” I rubbed my hands together gleefully like a comic book villain. “Wait till you see what I have!”

I emerged from downstairs with a box overflowing with cast-off clothing, and deposited it in the middle of the floor.

“There!” I exclaimed triumphantly.

“A box?”

“Of old clothes?”

Whew. My kids are a tough crowd.

“No, look. Your brother’s old jersey.” I dropped it over my youngest daughter’s head. “Now you just need a soccer ball and you’re the next All-Star.”

They began to dig through the box, unearthing treasures like old ties and hats, suit jackets, and scarfs. While I lounged on the couch nearby, costumes began to take shape: Pirates and railroad conductors, accountants and newspaper reporters. When they lost interest, I quietly referred them to a stack of board games gathering dust in the cupboard.

“Those are too hard, Dad. We don’t know how to play any of them.”

“Well, they have instructions,” I reminded them. “And you can read. You could ask your brother, too. He’s pretty handy with those kinds of things. Or even better, you could just use the pieces and the cards and make up your own rules.”

Naomi’s eyes widened as if the thought of discarding the rules and developing their own was sacrilegious. For a moment, I hesitated. Thoughts of mismatched game pieces and lost cards falling behind furniture danced through my head. I steeled myself against the impulse. After all, what was a little damage and loss if my kids gained the ability to play and the confidence to understand that they were capable of making up their own rules?

While I still strive to give my kids my full attention, I also recognize that the opportunity for them to engage in unstructured play is valuable, too. And I’ve stopped feeling guilty for waving them off to go play on their own. They need it as much as I do.

Looking to kindle opportunities for unstructured play in your house? Here are some things we’ve done to create kid-supervised, safe fun.

  • Get to the park and park it! Bring a book and stick your nose in it while the kids romp.
  • Encourage kids to turn their favorite book into a game or play or to dress up as the characters. Harry Potter spell tournament, anyone?
  • Backyard it. No props necessary. Encourage sticks and stones but no broken bones, please.
  • Plan play dates. Get together a gaggle of kids and let them go at it, running amok with all sorts of ingenious ideas.
  • Keep a treasure box of art supplies. Fill a plastic cabinet or trunk with loads of supplies and fill it to the brim with interesting things that they can create from. Don’t supply ideas, just materials. They kids will bring the mess and the creativity, guaranteed.
  • Play dress-up. Let you kids try on adult “personas” and jobs for size. Get some fabric, odd hats, an old briefcase, sunglasses, swords, helmets, or anything else that you can find.
  • Don’t trash it! Paper towel rolls, blocks, sand, mud, water, plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps, and any scraps of stuff you have lying around. Let your kids make or do with them whatever they like and don’t have any expectations. Less pressure to conform to ideals of art will create comfort with openness and uncertainty later in life and encourage creativity.
  • Board games. Card games. Chances are you’ve got a pile of them that aren’t getting the kind of attention they deserve. Let the kids figure them out, creating their own rules and cooperating to make new games that challenge logic.
  • Build a fort. Come on, it’s a rite of passage! Give them the materials they may need and encourage them to go looking around the house for other objects they want to fill their fort with. Leave them to create their very own fort no matter what it looks like. The process of trying to make something even remotely structurally sound is actually a very beneficial exercise in engineering.

I’ve seen firsthand the value of ditching adult supervision and the long-term benefits my kids have experienced. We’re all in. We’re bringing play back!

As you might have guessed, everyone made it through vacation unscathed. I’m not saying there weren’t accidents. Blanket forts with structural issues can have unexpected consequences. But I think that, for the first time, I was able to watch my kids playing together without feeling guilt over my lack of involvement as I tackled housework or answered emails.

In the last afternoon before school started again, I heard a strange sound rolling across the backyard. Peering out the window, I saw a maze of sticks drawing patterns across the snow. The girls were tiptoeing through it in boots, snickering and whinnying like horses. It was a medieval joust, where the horses lowered their heads and charged one another as the riders attempted to unseat each other. I opened the door and clapped, pleased by their resourcefulness.

“Do you need an audience? A king, perhaps?” I offered.

The girls glanced at each other and then pointed into the distance, to a row of twigs I hadn’t seen before. Stuck in the snow and standing like little soldiers.

“We already have an audience. See, Dad?”

“My mistake.” I smiled. “Carry on.”

I turned back toward the house, chuckling a little to myself. Who needs an adult when you have sticks? Precisely the point.

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