Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.
Many of us remember hearing our mother yell, “Be home when the street lights come on!” as we ran out the door in late summer. When we were kids, we all had experiences that required us to use our social skills to solve problems and gain consensus. As a lad I remember going door-to-door looking for someone to play with and organizing pick up games at the park. Back in the day, we were free-range kids and we loved it!
With my own childhood social life in mind, I had an experience with my own kids that made me reevaluate my approach to parenting. One evening last week, we had just sat down to dinner when we heard a knock at the door. Thinking is was a salesperson or a political campaigner, I gruffly answered the door. What I found was my 8-year old son’s friend, Milo. “Can Jack come out and play?” he asked before I even opened the door. I thought nothing of this request and explained that we were in the middle of dinner and that maybe Jack could play tomorrow. When I returned to the table, my kids were full of questions. The conversation went something like this:
Kids: What did Milo want?
Me: He wanted to know if Jack could play.
Kids: But he just came over?
Kids: But the moms didn’t set up a time to play?
Me: No, they didn’t
Kids: How can we play if the moms don’t talk first?
My kids were blown away that someone would simply knock on the door and ask to play. It made me think about how scheduled and programed our kids are. Unstructured time requires kids to be creative and flex their social and creative muscles. Many of us can remember games we made up or a secret language that was created during this unstructured friend time.
As parents, we have lots of ways to help our kids get comfortable with unstructured play. However, I think the most important thing to remember is to simply get out of our kids’ way and let them be in the driver’s seat. Force kids to go outside and play, call a friend and hang out, or simply play games as a family. Also, remember that being bored can be a blessing. Often, when kids are bored they find creative ways to entertain themselves.
Allowing our kids to have freedom and down time to just play is critical their emotional well being.