A popular anecdote for adults is the quintessential saying: ‘back when I was a kid…’
The mantra that things were substantially better for kids in a world of less technological distractions, social media platforms and a relentless barrage of digital stimuli, means that older adults and parents are placing an emphasis on a more natural mode of child rearing; they want their kids to experience what they experienced as youngsters, and realizing that our current world is a much different place is paramount to helping foster a sense of independence in our children.
Unstructured play, for example, is a pivotal exercise in allowing children to explore their own unique personalities, their environments, and helps them to develop relationships with others in a way that help them to develop a sense of self.
Martha B. Bronson’s Self-Regulation in Early Childhood – Nature and Nurture implores adults to accept that the potential for children to develop adaptive control is already present when life begins. Children want to discover the world for themselves, it’s up to adults to allow them the opportunity to exercise their abilities’ to make decisions themselves – albeit in a controlled environment.
“Early self-regulation is primarily reactive,” Bronson writes. “Child[ren] become increasingly capable of proactive, playful, and conscious (metacognitive) control.”
Allowing children the opportunity to express themselves freely through unstructured play, in turn helps garner life experiences that can include support and guidance from other people – adults and children alike. Through unstructured play, children are given the tools to adapt their own sensory-motor, emotional and cognitive systems.
Consider a situation wherein a child has to make a decision - perhaps regarding whether or not to jump into the water - on its own. The developmental process is strengthened when the child is allowed to weigh the pros and cons of their actions, independently of the cautious mentality of parents or guardians who may be watching over them. If the experience is pleasurable, the child discovers the rewards of their decision to take a risk. If it becomes a negative experience, the child has learns a valuable lesson.
The difference being, a decision based on the opinion of an adult has the potential to restrain the child’s creative, instinctive ability to think for themselves.
Unstructured play also can help develop a zest for life in children that helps gain motivational patterns.
Bronson says “during these years, the child makes tremendous leaps forward in regulating arousal, gaining adaptive control of behaviour in familial settings, and learning to control mental processing and problem solving.”
A recent study released by three psychologists from the University of Hildesheim in Germany, led by Werner Greve, conducted various tests related to unstructured play in children aged 3-10. The study concluded a positive correlation between having “ample time for free play as kids and adult social success.”
Free time and play as children is linked to high self-esteem and flexibility in adjusting goals in adults. In other words, children that are encouraged to play and self-regulate their own decisions grow the ability to roll with the punches more easily, and become more laid-back, stress free adults.
“Free play,” the study denotes, “allows children to develop the flexibility needed to adapt to changing circumstances and environments – an ability that comes in handy when life becomes unpredictable as an adult.”
An article from brighthorizons.com paraphrases a 2015 study from the Harvard University Centre on the Developing Child, which says the “executive function skills” developed during unstructured outdoor play as children translate into “essential life skills” that help people remember information, filter out distractions, and sustain focus over time.
These skills also include the ability for children to work together towards a common goal, learning the rules of friendship, like teamwork, problem solving, care and co-operation.
The benefits of unstructured free play aren’t all mental, either — a study from the New York Times concludes that by literally playing in the dirt, kids can become healthier. Bacteria and viruses in the soil gradually build up the strength of the immune system, and allow the brain to develop.
Another study from the Ohio State University College of Optometry says that 14 hours per week of outdoor light is effective for strengthening vision, therefore, reducing the chance for near sightedness in children. In the study, kids who spent more time outdoors has better distance vision than those who preferred to stay indoors.
It’s rare that an old adult anecdote rings true, but when we embrace the way children played ‘back when we were kids,’ our own children benefit in more ways than one.
Unstructured outdoor play is essential for the development, growth, and happiness of our children because it allows them to become their own person, and grow into adults with a grounded code of values, morals and ideas.