Early Childhood: Unstructured Play Time

A mountain of research supports the impressive benefits of unstructured, spontaneous play in children's lives, benefits that accrue to personal success and effectiveness.

And yet, most of our kids aren't getting enough play. Most are too busy taking lessons or practicing sports or sitting in front of screens.

We're facing an epidemic of Play Deficit Disorder — and the consequences to youth, and to the nation, are beginning to capture attention.

An IBM poll of 1500 corporate CEOs identified creativity as the number one "leadership competency" of the future. (Creativity: the production of something original and useful; a key aspect of problem-solving.) Since 1990, the creativity of American youth has been declining. For children between kindergarten and sixth grade, the decline is the most pronounced.

What does this have to do with play? Child development experts believe there's a strong link between creative problem-solving in adult life and the "practice" youngsters receive during childhood play when they're left to their own devices to pass the time with nothing more than friends, imagination, and the random stuff filling the toy box. When there's no formal activity on the Sunday afternoon schedule and my pal and I are prohibited from sitting in front of a screen, we're stuck figuring out what to do with the figures and plastic vehicles on the toy shelf ... with the Play-Doh or popsicle sticks or paints ... with the Batman cape and the football jersey in the dress-up trunk.

Former generations enjoyed the freedom to race out of doors and bike ride through the neighborhood or play Hide-and-Seek in the nearby park. But suburban children are more likely to be in an SUV driving to a practice (or a sibling’s practice for the younger ones). And even 3-year olds are playing “Angry Birds” on Mom’s iPhone, which may be fun, but is certainly not stretching the child’s imagination.

The flow of research keeps affirming that unstructured play provides an important foundation for a life of happiness and success, but are our children getting enough?

Do your kids suffer from Play Deficit Disorder? Let us know the antidote with a comment below.

Click here for more columns from the “Family Tip of the Month” provided by the Family Institute at Northwestern University.

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