This post about unstructured time was provided for the Melissa & Doug blog by Cindy Utzinger, pediatric Occupational Therapist.
Have you ever heard your kids say the words “Mom, I’m bored”? Well, if you have, you should pat yourself on the back and breathe a sigh of relief for a job well done.
It seems like in our society these days, us parents and caregivers feel this strong urge to keep our kids constantly entertained. I’m here to give you permission to stop the madness: sit down, grab a magazine, turn on your favorite TV show, and let you kids entertain themselves. Not only does this take some pressure off of you, but is very healthy for our children to do so.
Why is this? Self-led play has been proven time and time again to be crucial to a child’s development, especially for the development of the cognitive skill called executive functioning. Executive functioning involves a number of elements including working memory, reasoning, problem solving, planning, and cognitive flexibility. But perhaps the most important executive function is self-regulation. This is the ability for kids to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.
Executive function- and its self-regulation component- is important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use, and crime. In fact, good executive function can be a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ. So, by allowing children to get bored and have time for free (child directed play) we can help them gain the tools needed for self-regulation. Wow! I’m sold.
The nice things is that for most children, when given unstructured time, will find something to do. Children are happiest in self-directed play because their play is their work. The problem with one planned activity after another is that they are almost always adult directed. Unstructured play time is child directed allowing them to be creative, use their imaginations, and do their own problem solving.
The best remedy for boredom is to not fill our children’s days for them, but to leave some of the responsibility on them of how they can problem solve to cure their own boredom. Some of my favorite ways to see children experience free play is outside. I love seeing my kids go to work outside with a dump truck, a wagon, a bucket, some sticks, water, and a shovel. There is no end to the things they will do with those tools and the ways they will use them. Getting their hands dirty in the mud, picking up sticks, shoveling, carrying, and all of the things included during this free outside play time also give them great opportunities to gain the sensory input that is vital to their development.
I also love free, unstructured art time where they get to create and get their fingers messy. In my house, my kids love to paint and draw on the Standing Art Easel and use the Shape, Model, and Mold Play Clay. The sky is the limit with things they can come up with to create using their own hands and their own imaginations.
So, sit down, relax, read a magazine, and stop feeling guilty about letting your kids be ‘bored’!
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Cindy Utzinger is a pediatric Occupational Therapist, handwriting tutor, and founder of Building Write Foundations LLC. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and two young children (a son and a daughter). In her free time she can be found running through the streets of her neighborhood to get some exercise or enjoying time on the lake with family and friends. Through her website (www.cindyutzinger.com) she provides parents, teachers, and caregivers with information regarding the importance of building each and every child’s sensory foundation and provides ways to help build their sensory foundation and their foundation for learning. Through her website she also blogs and tackles issues dealing with handwriting problems, ADD/ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, and diagnoses on the autism spectrum.
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