With the wealth of enrichment and developmental activities available, parents may feel tempted to involve their child in as much as possible. Education specialist Janis Keyser explains that schedulinig multiple activities for children can lead to overbooking, where nearly every day the child engages in organized activity, such as sports or music lessons. While structure is very important, this may lead to minimizing time for equally vital free or unstructured play.
Far from just “doing nothing,” playtime is an invaluable part of a child’s development. Contrary to what some may believe, playtime is not down time from learning. Instead, it provides children the opportunity to learn on their own without active guidance from parents and teachers. Playtime is crucial to development in that it provides a break from organized learning, promotes socialization, and develops self-determination and independence.
Understandably, parents want to provide the best enrichment for their children. The temptation is to fill every hour with structure, regulating children’s time to activities that help determine future success. The concern arises when, after finished with guided activity, children are not given enough time to play without active instruction. Parents overbooking their child’s time potentially risks psychologically burning the child out. When forced to focus continually without enough down time, children become cranky and less inclined to participate. Scheduling playtime affords the opportunity to relax, free of rigid guidelines determining their behavior.
Preschool teacher Daniel Asres explains that during free play, children learn to play with one another. Through socialization, they teach each other how to behave, rather than their behavior being determined by external or institutional rules. They learn to cope with the challenges of cooperating with other children who may wish to play differently. By learning from peers in a context of fun rather than with adults and caregivers, children develop the skills necessary to manage themselves around others.
Engaging in structured activities requires children to behave according to certain rules. When allowed unstructured playtime, children may determine which games to play and what rules to follow. Free play allows them to create new rules and new games, which encourages creativity. It also provides a new context of autonomous learning where children may determine how to play.
Psychologist Rebecca Eberlin explains that unstructured down time relates directly to the development of executive functioning—that is, the ability to organize and self-manage. When children are allowed to create their own activities, they determine the nature of how they spend their time. Playtime creates an environment where children determine rules, schedules, and appropriate behavior. All these behaviors relate directly to later academic performance.