Why Self-Directed Play is Important to a Child’s Development

Human beings are biologically created to be curious and to explore is our natural instinct. From birth, we want to discover everything around us. Traditional learning structures and formal lessons are not the best way for our little ones to learn. Our anxiety for kids to know certain things at specific ages is an enormous obstacle to allowing their natural development.

When kids play, they learn. Children, when left to their own devices, will take initiative and come up with games and stories. Parents should not see play as an activity to be added to the schedule. Rather, they should allow their young ones to play throughout their childhood.


Self-Directed Play

Real play is self-directed play, and that means it is organized by the kids themselves. Child-initiated play allows children to entertain themselves, nurtures creativity and develops imagination. It is an active, spontaneous, hands-on activity that children control, without adult intervention. When kids create a skit or a musical presentation on their own, it becomes creative play.

Organized sports, although we think of them as play, are activities that are planned and controlled by someone else – usually an adult. Going to the amusement park is a passive activity. Even though it is fun and involves participation, entertainment is provided by the adults. Roller coasters and playground equipment can be fun, but they are based on someone’s ideas and not the child’s, which can contribute to habits of passivity and boredom.


The Benefits

Creative Thinking and Problem Solving:
Without adult’s intervention, kids have to think outside the box to solve problems. They learn to tackle problems on their own and put their heads together with their playmates to come up with solutions.

Decision Making and Leadership:
Who does what, how to do it, and who takes the lead? The young ones get to decide. It is through play that kids engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows the little ones to create a world they can master, and while they practice adult roles, they learn how to conquer their fears.

Teamwork and Social Skills:
Through undirected play, children learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate and resolve conflicts. It also teaches them how to get along with others who do not share the same point of view.

Conflict Resolution:
How to share and play fair? Free play that is child-initiated teaches kids ethics, relationships and how to treat others fairly.


How to Support Self-Directed Play?

Unstructured play time should occupy a big chunk of your kids’ daily schedule. “Floor time” or self-directed play gives the young ones a chance to bring you into their world. When we spend time playing with our kids, we bond with them. To encourage self-initiated play, choose an area where there are toys that foster open-ended play such as with blocks and building toys, play dough, dramatic play, baby dolls, cars and trucks.

Some adults do not know how to play with kids. They may feel uncomfortable doing childish things, or feel that they have to supervise them, instructing them what to do. Just observe what your child is doing. Follow the child’s lead and let him do the deciding.


Toys for Real Play

The best toys are those that encourage exploration and discovery. They do not demand an outcome from a child.
They include:

  • Blank paper and drawing materials
  • Plain blocks
  • Sand
  • Pots and pans
  • Dress-up clothes
  • Clay / Dough
  • Plainly-made dolls
  • Gardening tools
  • Outdoor riding and climbing toys (ladder, wagon, hanging bars)
  • Common household items for imitating activities (cleaning, cooking, fixing, building)

The world is a child’s playground and the provider of a rich education. It is our responsibility as parents and educators to help kids explore the world and its wonders. The last thing we want to do is to schedule a string of activities and programmes to keep our little ones busy. Practice letting your child get bored because some of the best creativity comes from boredom.


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