Posted: Oct 04, 2014 5:00 AM
It's no big secret that over-scheduling is the new normal, and the new school year lends itself to a packed schedule for little ones. Free play is more important than ever and can have a positive impact on learning.
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It seems as though the moment the first bell of the school year rings, families get stuck in a pattern of going and doing. Between school, sports and extracurricular activities, the weeks fly by without a moment to stop and breathe. Or play. In the life of a child, play is very much a function of daily living. Kids are hardwired to play, imagine and discover the world through creativity. And yet, we stick them in desks for six hours each day and then drag them from place to place in an effort to expand their world views (or some other explanation).

Kids need time to engage in free play. They need to invent their own games, work through their own scenarios and play without restrictions. Play, as it turns out, is critical to healthy growth and development.


Play boasts many benefits for children of all ages, including:

  • Improved social skills
  • Problem solving skills
  • Language skills
  • Cognitive development
  • Physical skills (gross and fine motor)
  • Emotional development
  • Stress relief
  • Healthy parent-child bonds

While it might seem like factoring in time for play is one more thing to add to the to-do list each week, the truth is that making time to slow down and play might just help the entire family learn to prioritize healthy development over skill development and stop rushing from one thing to the next.

Make choices

Kids don’t need to enroll in every after-school program that sounds interesting and play every sport that their friends play, but they do need downtime to regroup and relax. The school day can be stressful for little ones, and prioritizing downtime helps kids learn to regulate their emotions. When kids learn how to stop and regroup, they learn how to reset themselves when the going gets tough (even during the school day).

Help your child make healthy choices by setting limits on after-school activities. Two activities per week leaves plenty of time for playing at home or playing with peers.

Ditch the playdate

I’m not sure when playing became a “date,” but the playdate has morphed into quite the event of late. I once had a mom drop off a bag of craft activities with her child, just in case I hadn’t planned anything. I hadn’t. I prefer to let kids play.

While you might need to set a date when those busy schedules collide, you don’t have to micromanage the time kids spend together.

While you might need to set a date when those busy schedules collide, you don’t have to micromanage the time kids spend together. An afternoon of play does not need to include fancy crafts, baking projects or any other highly structured activity. Let go of the need to schedule your time and let your kids play of their own free will, instead. When kids have time to play independently, they learn to work through problems and they improve their social interaction skills. Sit back and let play take center stage.

Imagination rules

It’s tempting to stock your home with certain dress-up props, games and building materials to inspire play, but the truth is that kids are very adept at creating their own fun. Nine times out of 10 a cardboard box and a few paper towel rolls are more fun and engaging for little ones than the fancy outfits and toys that cost a fortune and collect dust in the back of the closet.

Before you rush to get everything into the recycling bin each week, take some time to consider potential props for play. Do the same when you go through old clothes and shoes to donate. Kids love to tap into their imagination when engaged in play, and real life and homemade props help kids reach a higher level of play.

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