If you get a chance, drive down the neighborhood streets in your town. How many houses have children playing outside – really playing outside in the dirt, rain or sand and not sitting on the front porch with a tablet in their hand?
Technology may move society forward at a rapid pace, but at what cost? More parents are shying away from unstructured play outside for fear of possible dirt, stains or damaged clothing. If this sounds like you, consider the importance of unstructured playtime on your child’s development before installing that new game.
Why Unstructured Playtime Is Important
Unstructured playtime is declining with the combination of extracurricular activities, parents’ busy schedules and mobile devices. If you could turn back time, you would find children in the 1970s engaged in unstructured playtime with very little television screen time. Fast forward to 2017 and today’s children spend 50 percent less time playing outside in the dirt or rain.
When children engage in unstructured playtime, they activate specific portions of their brain while learning to grow physically and socially. Children who play with others learn to navigate difficult social situations, work as a team and share. Playing outside encourages children to run, jump and strengthen other gross- and fine-motor skills.
Children who learn best through hands-on learning can use unstructured playtime to cement concepts into their minds. Instructing a child during a game to skip, hop or catch a ball can increase that child’s verbal comprehension. Similarly, word comprehension increases when children demonstrate actions through play, and this creates new neural pathways.
When you increase the number of neural pathways in your child’s brain, you give them an advantage later in life for learning complex concepts. However, your child does not receive the same benefits from sedentary work as opposed to physical play.
By playing outside, your child’s body receives a work out that provides necessary nutrients to the brain such as oxygen, water and glucose. Simply sitting on the couch does not have the same effect. One study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children age eight and up spend as much as 7.5 hours on devices, such as mobile devices, televisions and game consoles.
Allowing students in school to take breaks for recess gives them a change of scenery and a chance to recharge and play the way they want to play. This spontaneous playing can help them grow physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively, which may also improve their results in school.
The first few years of a child’s life are critical to their brain development, with as much as 90 percent of their brain developing before age five. Children as young as three months old can benefit from outdoor playtime. Infants absorb the sights and sounds from their environment as they grow.
Older babies learn to play with others, share and interact with their environment through the five senses. Toddlers begin to master their fine motor skills while building and stacking with blocks or other items and throwing a ball. As they become confident taking steps on their own, they can feel the earth beneath their bare feet.
Toddlers and preschoolers use free play to exercise their imaginations and storytelling skills, and it keeps them on the move. They are open to learning about plants and animals while processing what they see, touch and hear around them. It’s okay to let them play in the flower bed and discover plants and earth worms.
One study suggests that children who participate in self-directed play are improving executive functions, which are the processes that help a person to self-regulate their actions and emotions. When allowed to play with adult supervision, but not adult-directed play, children display goal-oriented behaviors on their own while discovering new interests.
How You Can Engage Your Child
Although your child may engage in unstructured play at school during recess, playing together as a family builds a deep connection between parents and children. Plus, allowing your child to play on their own with you watching from afar creates trust, builds resiliency and encourages physical and neural development.
The following are several ideas to help you engage your little ones during playtime.
Infants should spend some time each day on their tummy to strengthen their neck and back. You can lay your baby on a blanket outside to let them feel the breeze on their face and hear the birds chirping.
As your baby grows, feel free to stroll them around the neighborhood or take them to a park to watch other children engaged in play. Letting them handle leaves, grass and colorful blocks will improve their fine motor skills.
Older babies with better hand-eye coordination can try to catch bubbles you blow, play in a sand box or throw and kick a brightly colored ball. Babies between the ages of 10 and 14 months can engage in water play with cups.
Toddlers love to play pretend and build with colorful connecting blocks. Taking your child to a playground with tunnels, slides and forts can make for a fun day full of experiences. Talk about the environment around you, naming the trees, animals and birds your child observes. Consider taking your little one on a hike for a change of scenery.
At home, create a garden or flower bed or plant flowers in pots. Sidewalk chalk is an inexpensive way to help your children express themselves artistically while improving their fine-motor skills.
Preschoolers and School-Age Children
Physical activity is crucial to the development of your child’s gross-motor skills, so visit playgrounds with slides, swings and jungle gyms. You can also build an obstacle course for your children or use an old sheet as a parachute to play games.
Don’t forget about the fun things you did as a child. For example, your child would probably love to ride bikes, roller skate, fly kites, swim, sled down hills, run, jump rope, hike, play tag and dance.
On the next pretty day — or rainy day — dress the kids in play clothes and journey outside. Get involved and make playtime fun for both you and your children.
Don’t be afraid to get dirty. It all washes off at the end of the day.
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