The importance of unstructured play time

Nowadays, a typical day for young school going children is fairly structured. There is little time for leisure with both parents working, running homes and raising their children by themselves. 

Let’s first examine the kind of day that young children typically have. The early morning is rushed to reach school on time. The environment in the school is structured with the plan each teacher comes in with. Once children return home or to day-care there might be classes to go, playtime with friends, and exposure to various gadgets or TV.  And then follows the evening routine of bath, family dinner and bedtime, which hopefully is early enough to give them healthy amount of sleep.  So in a tight day like this, what is the missing element? There is no time for self directed play/ free play/ pretend play.

What exactly is free play? This is when children play by themselves using their imagination without guidance from adults. Ideally, it's best when children have the space around nature and outdoors. If not, then even a quiet uncluttered space in the house where there is no risk of danger allowing them to move about freely is good enough. During free play, children might wear a dupatta around them and pretend to be someone, or walk around in our shoes, and other times use small blocks or toys and create an imaginary world around them. Sometimes they may use pillows and bed sheets to make a tent and do a pretend play.  

It is important for growing children to have enough unstructured time to play as it has tremendous benefits in early childhood.  It helps them to express their individuality with no one correcting, shaming or judging them. Children also challenge their dexterity and try to master the use of their limbs and strengthen their muscles through free play for example we often see children doing somersaults by themselves on the grass or sand.

Pretend play helps children to process the happenings of the day. Don’t our children come home and act out how their teacher was in school, or a playground incident with a friend?  Through play, children form a narrative giving them a clear understanding of how to  deal with situations and people around them.   

Children love to act out magical or mythical stories read to them. Playing various characters gives them the imaginative power to be however they want to be. They learn the creative expression of many emotions like fear, sadness, joy and anger in these role plays which helps in building their emotional intelligence.    

 Isn’t it wonderful that they can spend time with themselves with independence from such a young age? This encourages them in building a life skill of enjoying one’s own company!   

In our sessions we have parents who share that their children keep dreaming and no work gets done! Though, we might not get children to keep their bag back in it’s right place  or have a bath exactly at the time we want them to... yet we need to be aware that during this time children are growing emotionally, creatively and processing their reality. And when enough time is made for free play, children are likely to cooperate with us. Young children show a strong need for this kind of play and need a lot of unstructured time. As parents we must observe our children and be attuned to the time that they choose to fulfil this need.

Author: Mrinalini Ponappa Banerjea is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.