With the rapid increase in structured activities for school-age children – karate, gymnastics, music and dance lessons, religious school, etc. – many parents and educators are concerned that children don’t have enough opportunities to simply kick back and play. Play is a significant component of human development. While we value and encourage play among toddlers and preschoolers, we often send the message to our school-age children that play is no longer important.
However, play encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills, offers an outlet for stress, and opens up a child’s world to new discoveries and capabilities. While most children no longer live in neighborhoods where outdoor, unstructured play fills the hours after school, parents can help their children find other opportunities to play.
- Provide your child with several blocks of free time each week. Set aside one night per week as a television-free, music lesson-free, computer-free night. Encourage your child to rediscover the fun of Legos, puzzles, fort-building, or checkers.
- Support your child’s desire for ‘alone time.’ Many school-age children enjoy solitary play in their own space. If your child has the opportunity to disappear to his room for an hour or two, chances are he’ll use the time to build a futuristic world with his Legos or create a dinosaur jungle under the bed.
- Give your child some simple, open-ended play props. Old cardboard boxes, recycled arts and crafts materials, pieces of fabric and blocks of wood can encourage creative construction projects and new games.
- Build a mini-collection of sports equipment – several types of balls, some bats and rackets, a jump rope, etc. – and encourage children to start up a game with siblings or neighbors. Introduce the idea that children can play sports without the assistance of a coach or the structure of an organized game.
- Try to limit the number of toys or action figures based on movies or television shows. These toys often lead to scripted play that leaves little room for innovation. If your child is firmly attached to these types of toys, introduce open-ended props or unfamiliar play characters. For instance, building a new spaceship for Luke Skywalker out of a cardboard box will add some creativity to the play.
- Strongly encourage children to play outside whenever possible. A daily walk around the block or thirty minutes in the backyard will force your child to abandon more sedentary pursuits like television viewing or Internet surfing. Eventually, your child may come to prefer the pleasures of outside play.