Importance of free play

February 26, 2011 | By | Reply More

Free play is unstructured, imaginative play. Scientists have determined that free play is:

Critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills such as problem-solving. Research into animal behavior confirms plays benefits and establishes its evolutionary importance. Ultimately, play may provide animals (including humans) with skills that will help them survive and reproduce.

The above quote is from an article called written by Melinda Wenner titled “The Serious Need for Play” found in the February/March 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind.

Despite these many benefits regarding free play many parents are packing their kids’ schedule with structured activities that deprive them of these opportunities to freely engage in play. According to one study, between 1981 and 1997, the amount of free play by American children has dropped by one quarter. Wenner blames competitive parents:

Concerned about getting their kids into the right colleges, parents are sacrificing playtime for more structured activities. As early as preschool, youngsters after school hours are now being filled with music lessons and sports reducing time for the type of imaginative and rambunctious cavorting that fosters creativity and cooperation.

Wenner’s article cites psychiatrist Stuart Brown who suggests that limiting free play “may result in a generation of anxious, unhappy and socially maladjusted adults. What is it about the right kind of play? It is different than playing structured games or playing musical instruments. Because free play has no obvious function short-term and no clear goal, it inspires creativity and it invites trying out new activities, fantasies and roles. It also appears to hone our social skills, including our abilities to negotiate with others. Scientists have concluded that there is a connection between these two things: imaginative play helps build fantasies that helps children cope with complex social situations. It creates a “social buffering.”
For adults who seek the benefits of free play, Stuart Brown suggests three approaches:

Body play: participate in some form of active movement that has no time pressures or expected outcome (if you are exercising just to burn fat, that is not play!).
Object play: use your hands to create something you enjoy (it can be anything; again, there doesn’t have to be a specific goal).
Social play: join other people in seemingly purposeless social activities, “from small talk to verbal jousting,” Brown suggests.

Which leads me to a story from last fall. My wife advised me that her cousin was coming through St. Louis with her boyfriend Don. Who is “Don?”, I wondered. It turned out that Don Fogle, a former world Frisbee champion and a professional juggler, had formed a small company that gave workshops to grade school and high school students to encourage them to learn how to engage in cooperative play through various types of physical activities including juggling. Before he left St. Louis, Don allowed me to videotape him engaging in some of the play activities he teaches kids.  Don’s presentation includes some scientific claims that I would like to know more about. Even if one is not completely sold on Don’s specific scientific explanation for the importance of his program, it seems intuitively correct the children and adults all need unstructured physical activity for their peace of mind, and that juggling seems like an excellent approach. Certainly, human animals have not historically sat still in classrooms for 8 hours a day reading books and staring at computer screens.  The environment in which we evolved was nothing of the sort, yet those who don’t fit into this highly artificial environment are often diagnosed as cognitively or emotionally impaired.  At a time when many schools have cut out physical education, it seems intuitively correct to stir in these sorts of unstructured activities (after the structured training, the participants are encouraged to play.

Without further ado, here’s Don demonstrating ways of playing using juggling sticks.

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Category: children, Health

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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