Notions of summer as endless free time—to climb trees, chase fireflies, build a fort in the woods, maybe set up a lemonade stand—have been supplanted in many families by pricey summer camps or other highly structured activities. But unstructured play isn’t wasted time; it’s the work of childhood, a vehicle for developing a basic set of life skills.
Research published in Early Childhood Research & Practice shows that children that attend play-based rather than academic preschools become better students.
Child development expert David Elkind, Ph.D., author of The Power of Play, maintains, “Play is essential to positive human development.” Various types teach new concepts and contribute to skills, including helpful peer relations and ways to deal with stress.
Self-initiated and self-directed play means the child is calling the shots and learning what comes naturally. If a child strums a guitar because he loves it, that’s play. When being instructed, the child may enjoy the experience, but it’s not the same, because the motivation is at least partly external.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children play outside as much as possible—for at least 60 minutes a day—yet almost half of America’s youth routinely aren’t getting any time outside, according to study findings reported in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Outdoor play helps combat childhood obesity, acquaints them with their larger environment and supports coping skills.
Every child is different. But as Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg, a professor of pediatrics at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and University of Pennsylvania and a leading expert on resilience, remarks, “Every child needs free, unscheduled time to master his or her environment.” Play is valuable because it miniaturizes the world to a manageable size and primes kids for learning.
Consider the complexities involved in a game of chase. Kids develop social skills in organizing and agreeing on rules, and then participate in the physical and creative actions of the actual activity while resolving conflicts or disagreements during its course—providing a foundation for excelling in school and even the business world.
Solitary play also provides problem-solving practice. A young girl playing with her dolls may try out different ways of handling the situation if one of them “steals” a treat from the dollhouse cookie jar before tea is served.
Because youth haven’t yet developed a capacity for abstract thinking, they learn and discover more about themselves mainly by doing. Developing small self-sufficiencies gives kids a sense of power in a world in which they are, in fact, small and powerless. This is why kids love to imagine dragon-slaying scenarios. Taking risks and being successful in independent play can increase confidence and prepare them to resist peer pressures and stand up to bullying.
Given our global challenges, tomorrow’s adults will need the skills developed by such play—innovation, creativity, collaboration and ethical problem solving—more than any preceding generation. A major IBM study of more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries in 2010 found that the single most sought-after trait in a CEO is creativity.
To survive and thrive, our sense of self must be shaped internally, not externally. We need to learn and focus on what we’re good at and like to do; that’s why it’s vital to have kids try lots of different activities, rather than immersing them full-time in parental preferences and dictated experiences. Leading experts in the field agree that considerable daily, unguided time not devoted to any structured activity facilitates their investment in the emotional energy required to develop their own identities. It is this sense of self that provides a home base—a place to retreat, throughout life.
Ultimately, everyone must rely on their own resources and sense of self or they’ll always be looking for external direction and validation. Mental health workers say that produces kids that take unnecessary risks, have poor coping skills and are vulnerable to substance abuse. Business leaders say such a tendency produces workers that need too much time, resources and direction to be really valuable.
In the end, learning who we are primarily takes place not in the act of doing, but in the quiet spaces between things, when we can reflect upon what we have done and who we are. The more of these quiet spaces families provide for kids, the better.
Madeline Levine, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and educator in San Francisco, CA, is the author of New York Times bestsellers, Teach Your Children Well and The Price of Privilege.