“Mom, I’m bored! I can’t find anything to do.” While these words might be a commonality these days, parents of a generation or two ago would likely have answered the complaint with “Go find something to do or Go out and play.” Today’s parents often change the answer to “Well, Dinosaur Train is on Netflix on in ten minutes,” or “We’re leaving for soccer/dance/softball/baseball practice soon.”
There’s no doubt that how and what kids fill their time with has changed pretty dramatically over the past decades. David Elkind, the author of The Power of Play, writes “Children’s play – their inborn disposition for learning, curiosity, imagination, and fantasy – is being silenced in the high-tech, commercialized world we have created.
Toys, about which children once spun elaborate personal stories with, now engender little more than habits of passive consumerism. The spontaneous pickup games that once filled neighborhoods have largely been replaced by organized team sports and computer games, which eliminates the daily physical activity kids once partook in.
Experts are now acknowledging that the loss of creative childhood play has some negative consequences.
Free, active and creative play develops imagination and creativity – tools that are well recognized as important down the road in higher levels of math and science – as well as intellectual, social, emotional and physical development.
Aside from child overweight and obesity figures, which seem to be rising each year relentlessly, the lack of active play appears to be having an impact on emotional and cognitive development.
Play gives kids a chance to practice policing themselves
Creativity and imagination are like muscles; if you don’t use them, you lose them.
So what can parents do to help strengthen their child’s creativity and imagination through play? Here are a few tips:
- Many parents today are afraid of letting their kids play alone outside because of concerns for their safety. In most areas, there are still relatively safe environments where kids can get out and explore on their own or with unobtrusive adult supervision – backyards, neighborhood cul-de-sacs, school or community playgrounds, even parks.
- Provide “open-ended” things to do or play with. These are items that can be used or manipulated in multiple ways, like blocks, legos, playdough or art supplies. Open-ended games, like acting out dramatic plays, puppet shows, and story-building (where one person starts a story, and others build on it line by line), are also ideal for exercising imagination and creativity.
- Avoid over-scheduling and over-structuring. As a matter of fact, over the past two decades, children have lost 12 hours of free time a week, including 8 hours of unstructured play and outdoor activities. A significant amount of this time has been replaced with TV and other forms of media entertainment.
- In an effort to help kids “get ahead” in skill and intellectual development, organized sports, lessons, and camps of every kind are filling up with three- and four-year-olds. This begs the question of would your child be better off with free play where their emotional, creative, intellectual and physical development are allowed to flourish? Only you as a parent can decide.
Unstructured play is often seen as a waste of time since the child doesn’t appear to be “learning” anything. So don’t feel guilty about allowing so much “free” time – research shows that time spent in active play is not really “wasted” after all. Don’t hesitate to play with your child; this forms deeper bonds that you will be thankful for later.