Children Learn Through Play

Have you ever watched your child play? There is more going on than meets the eye. Mrs. Jaime Keller, elementary principal at Shalom Christian Academy says unstructured, or free play, is essential for a child’s developing brain.


Why is free play important?


Free play can foster independence, allowing a child to learn how to entertain themselves. It helps build creativity and encourage decision making skills. When given the chance, children are able to come up with their own unique ideas or make choices, whether playing in a group or by themselves. While playing in an unstructured setting in a group, we can see the j kellerqualities of leaders and followers begin to emerge. Though structured, scheduled activities are important in the development of gross motor and social skills, by allowing children the unstructured opportunity to run, jump, climb, explore, build and imagine, we encourage our children to build strength, coordination, an understanding of perseverance, and a sense of their likes and dislikes.


Brain benefits


When students are given an opportunity for unstructured play, such as during recess, their brain is able to “re-charge” giving enhanced attention when they return to the classroom. Studies have also shown that when children pretend together, they tend to develop better receptive and expressive speech. Children who engage in cooperative unstructured play tend to be better able to self-regulate their impulses and emotions while cooperative play requires them to learn to get along with others. Studies have also shown children given opportunities to participate in free play are better able to problem solve when there are multiple solutions to a problem. Again, this can be attributed to the need to get along with others and come to a common ground on how and what will be played.


Start with everyday items


Have you ever noticed a child who played with the box instead of the toy that came with it? Many great props and equipment can be found right in the home—paper towel tubes, water, scraps of material, old clothing, shoes, hats, and large boxes that came with a UPS delivery. If you don’t mind the clutter, visit a local appliance store and ask for a refrigerator box. These can be turned into houses, space ships, igloos, boats—whatever your child wishes. Blocks are another great addition to a toy repertoire. As children contemplate how to make their towers ever taller without allowing them to topple over, they are developing critical problem solving skills. When outside, children can use wood chips, sticks, small stones, and even grass to create amazing things. One of my fondest memories as a young child was making “stew” with a friend with all of the wonderful things nature provided.


Structured time and free time


Structured activities certainly help students develop gross motor skills, social skills, and learn that there are times and places we must follow rules. While all of those skills are important to a child’s development, structured activities tend to be very much adult led. This could take away from allowing the students to be creative problem solvers. Children benefit when parents find the balance between getting involved in structured activities and allowing time for full, free play. Start today – your child’s brain will benefit greatly from unstructured play.



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