A three-year-old drags the couch cushions across the room and uses them as building blocks. After a few failed attempts to build a free-standing structure, it occurs to her that she can balance the cushions between the arm of the couch and the wall to build a ceiling. Next, she gathers food, pots and pans from her toy kitchen and carefully arranges them in this makeshift fort. She uses a puzzle box for a stove and declares that her restaurant is now open for visitors.
This effort required planning, problem-solving and time to properly execute. She doesn’t know it, but she is building her executive function skills! In her mind, she’s simply having fun.
Each summer, parents scramble to the fill the weeks with family adventures, exciting classes and camps, and activities that have educational value for little ones. Keeping kids busy with fun activities is a common theme during the summer months.
Here’s the good news for parents: feel free to shed the guilt of creating the “perfect summer.” Research shows that unstructured play is one of the best ways to help your kids learn and grow during the summer months. One study found that unstructured play increases executive function skills such as organizing, staying focused, initiating tasks, self-regulation of emotions, and self-monitoring or the ability to keep track of what you’re doing. Kids who engage in free play are better able to set their own goals, stay focused and work through problems.
Need more reasons to stop running from activity to activity?
Play promotes decision-making skills. When young children engage in a self-directed play, they have a lot of decisions to make. Whether they are playing alone, with a friend, or with a family member, the natural first step in the play process is figuring out what to do. Next, your child has to figure out what materials he or she needs, how to set up the play, and assign roles. These are big decisions!
Play builds gross motor skills. There is no better time for outdoor play than during the summer months. Whether kids are learning throw and catch, swimming, climbing a tree, or running through a sprinkler, they engage different muscles and build their gross motor skills.
When kids have time to run around in a yard, nature area or local park, they learn to coordinate their muscle groups to do fun stuff such as swinging, climbing and balancing. What’s more, outside play helps kids take healthy risks with their bodies (ex: jumping from a log), build confidence in their ability to do things, and get exercise while reducing stress.
Play helps kids work through fears and stress. Have you ever watched a toddler dress up as a doctor and administer check-ups and shots to all of her stuffed animals? You are witnessing the power of play as a coping process.
It’s natural for young children to develop fears as they grow and begin to explore the world around them. Sometimes these fears stem from a negative experience, such as a shot or a bee sting. Fears can be triggered by a lack of understanding about a place or situation. For toddlers, trying on the role of the doctor, teacher, or parent helps them feel in control and make sense of the situation.
Play teaches conflict resolution skills. Here’s one thing that groups of kids quickly learn about free play: in order for play to continue, every player has to have fun. When peers become frustrated and leave, the play comes to an abrupt halt.
Through the context of unstructured play, groups of kids learn to share and verbalize their ideas, work together, and resolve disputes. You might find that a group of kids completely rewrites the rules for kickball to make it fun and easy to understand for everyone involved. By playing in groups, kids hone their social interaction skills and learn to cope with and work through frustration and conflict.
Play helps creativity soar. When young children engage in self-directed play, they tap into creative thinking. Dress up encourages kids to try out new roles. Higher-level play (for example, opening a restaurant in the family room) helps kids imagine how they might function in the world. And messy play offers endless opportunities for exploring how to use a variety of different materials.
When young children have adequate time to play on their own terms, they learn and grow at their own pace and build confidence and competence in the process.