The benefits of free play
Think that six-year-old jumping in puddles is wasting time that would be better spent practising piano? Not really, it turns out. Since the late 1970s, research has illustrated a relationship between play and a multitude of useful skills. Studies show that less-structured activities (playing with sand, dress-up or doodling, say) are linked to improved cognitive functions, such as literacy and problem-solving skills, in kids.
Although scheduled activities like piano lessons can provide valuable learning opportunities, parents and caregivers shouldn’t underestimate the power of free play. In 2014, Frontiers in Psychology reported that children who spent more time playing freely became better at setting and reaching goals than those who mainly engaged in structured activities, such as sports.
“Kids need unstructured time for cognitive, social and creative development,” says Dr. William Ammons, a clinical psychologist in Bowmanville, Ont., who works with young people. He explains that, when children are given a task to perform, they focus on a goal. Those who are given free rein must develop skills to test limits, make decisions and practise social skills. “Kids need time for quiet reflection and purposelessness, which isn’t about putting a ball in a net,” says Ammons.