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The Importance of Free Play

07/03/2014 05:27PM ● Published by Melanie Teague

By Paul Hunter

Disconnect / Unplug / Turn off / Off the Grid

Time is the one thing that once used, we cannot get back.  It is our choice if we “spend” it frivolously or we “invest” it wisely.  What is the legacy you want for your family?  Does it include the busyness involved in kids activities:  sports, dance, music lessons, etcetera? Or does it include family time that invokes creativity, resourcefulness and the ability to be?

Child psychologists have gone on record saying we all need unplanned downtime, where nothing is scheduled, thus allowing us to be spontaneous.  After talking with many adults over 40, I have concluded the general consensus is we remember our childhoods of playing all day and “having” to come back inside for dinner.  We played.  We were not at practice, tournaments, recitals, or anything else that was planned, especially by someone else. 

This unplanned time allows kids to be creative, be masters of their time, develop people skills (or challenge them) and problem-solve without adults hovering around.  Wow, to be a kid again.  Kids get to be kids and adults should be adults about it, letting kids do these things to forge their way.  

The best science lessons are learned outside the classroom.  Lose the desire to be a hovering helicopter parent and do a periodic fly-by instead.  They’re making a fort in the living room from sofa cushions or in the backyard from scrap wood?  Great; they get to learn about gravity, friction, weight, strength and possibly teamwork.  They’re playing in puddles and in the mud?  Only a kid can imagine the possibilities!  

Encourage mistakes and resourcefulness.  Go to the beach and make it easy.  Pack a cooler, water, shade, and towels.  Have them – and not you - carry any toys they want.  You supply the ability to be there all day.  If they have to limit themselves to one or two toys, then so be it.  They might learn to repurpose a particular item rather than have to have all the specialty items they THINK they need.  Have a sand castle contest for the biggest, even if it becomes a huge pile of sand because they went for size, not form.  Let them work outside the box.  As they get older you can require a bridge or some number of towers.  It might be time for YOU to think outside the box.

Coach them into creativity rather than controlling it.  Don’t solve their problems; they need to learn themselves.  Remind both them and you that you were able to solve the same problems by yourself when you were their age.  Constantly providing the solutions is in fact, not easier - it creates the scenario that you are the all-knowing Oz who must be sought out every time a solution is needed. 
Do you need more motivation to encourage your kids to play freely? In “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents" by Peter Gray, Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College, Gray presents a review of research showing a correlation between the decline of free play in developed nations and the rise of depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism in children, teens, and young adults.

Maybe we ought to let our kids be kids, solve some of their own problems and not just participate in the world we, as adults, have created.  Imagine that we don’t know everything, especially about being a kid.  My guess is that the years have functioned as a horrible filter for some of us that causes us to forget our youthful years.  Were you forced to grow up too fast and maybe miss out on some of those years?  Don’t take it out on your kids.  Jump in WITH them and experience it now.

There is still time.
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