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Experts call unstructured play essential to children's growth

Third of three parts

Thursday, October 03, 2002

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Parents, do you want to increase your children's academic potential, social skills and creativity? Let them experience boredom.

Part One:
Development experts say children suffer due to lack of unstructured fun

Part Two
Creative play makes better problem-solvers


That's the advice of child development specialists who want to see American children spend more time in unstructured play and less time in structured activities or zoned out in front of an electronic screen.

Giving your children a break from organized activities and electronic baby-sitters could very well mean sentencing them to boredom, at least at first.

But experts say that when deprived of anything else to do, children will find a way to amuse themselves -- even if it means simply daydreaming.

And that's exactly the point: letting children use their own creativity to fill some of their time. In the process, they will be giving a workout to their mental, emotional and social skills.

"Parents worry about kids' boredom, so they schedule their lives to keep them busy," says Alvin Rosenfeld, a child psychiatrist who is co-author, with Nicole Wise, of "The Over-scheduled Child."

"But empty hours teach children how to create their own happiness."

Richard Louv, senior editor of the Washington, D.C.-based group Connect for Kids, adds that "children need adults in their lives who understand the relationship between boredom and creativity -- and are willing to set the stage so that kids can create the play."

Parents can help children get the most out of unstructured play by ensuring their safety and keeping the electronic screens turned off. Parents also might provide materials (paints, clay, etc.) and even gentle suggestions, if necessary. A good new source of ideas is the book "Family Fun Boredom Busters," edited by Deanna Cook. Other books can easily be found in a local library.

Parents need to remember, however, that their role isn't one of camp director.

"Constructively bored kids eventually turn to a book, or build a fort, or pull out the paints ... and create, or come home sweaty from a game of neighborhood basketball. But kids need the guidance of parents or other adults if their boredom is to be constructive, and lead to creativity," Louv said.

Sharna Olfman, an associate professor of psychology at Point Park College, cautions parents to expect children to be balky at first. There may be increased bickering among siblings and lots of whining.

"It would be easier just to give in and throw a video on," Olfman says. "But it's really so much better to let your child be bored. Amazingly enough, they will eventually think of something to do."

Katrina Kenison, author of "Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers In a Hurry," notes that most of today's adults learned the benefits of boredom as children.

"Left to our own amusements, we found resources that we didn't know we had. ... These were valuable lessons -- and I fear that our own busy, well-entertained children may not ever have the chance to learn them. Inventiveness and self-reliance are being scheduled right out of them."

Child development experts acknowledge that finding time for unstructured play isn't easy. It's particularly difficult for single parents and for families who live in rough neighborhoods where playing outside isn't an option.

But the benefits of unstructured play are so great that experts urge parents to try to find an hour a week for it. And they offer these tips to make getting started easier:

    dot.gif Limit television.

This is the most important recommendation, most experts say. And they admit that it's probably the most difficult, both for the children who will pout and for their parents who use TV to give themselves a breather.

Because studies have shown that children watch television an average of 38 hours per week, cutting back can free a good-sized chunk of time for unstructured play. There's another benefit, says James Steyer, a Stanford University law professor and author of "The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media's Effect on Our Children."

"If another adult spent five or six hours a day with your kids, regularly exposing them to sex, violence and rampantly commercial values, you would probably forbid that person to have further contact with them," Steyer says. "Yet most of us passively allow the media to expose our kids routinely to these same behaviors ... and do virtually nothing about it."

    dot.gif Limit other "screen" time.

Most children spend hours each day at computers, playing with hand-held game devices or watching videos in the car.

Families can set a daily limit that allows time for your child to be unplugged and left to his or her own devices.

    dot.gif Choose toys carefully.

Increasing unstructured play time doesn't require a big investment in new toys. Some basic art supplies, library books and objects collected from nature (acorns, etc.) can keep kids busy for quite some time.

"A 3-year-old is just as happy with a packing box as with the computer" that came in it," contends Jane Healy, a Colorado-based child development expert and author of "Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It."

Stanley Greenspan, a child psychologist, urges parents to remember one key fact: "The value of a toy is proportional to the degree that it invites imagination and creativity."

Joan Almon, coordinator for the U.S. Alliance for Childhood, tells the story of two girls who were comparing notes about their dolls. One girl had an electronically enhanced doll and boasted: "My doll can say 500 words!" The other girl was holding an old-fashioned cloth doll and countered: "My doll can say anything I want her to say."

    dot.gif As much as possible, send your children outside to play.

Playing outside promotes more running around, which helps your child sleep better at night and helps battle the obesity epidemic among America's youngsters.

Experts also advise parents to ensure recess during school time. Like adults, kids need a break from their work. Yet many schools have cut or eliminated recess to increase instructional time and preparation for standardized tests.

"A study done on fourth-graders a few years ago found that if you compare children who have had recess and those who have not had recess at the same time of day, the children who didn't have recess were more fidgety and less on task," said Olga Jarrett, a University of Georgia early childhood education professor who has researched the recess issue.

"I suspect that a lot of what we are seeing in terms of hyperactivity in kids may be related to the inappropriateness of the school day for children's physical needs. When you look at a school day with no breaks, you have to wonder how an adult would function in the same situation."

    dot.gif Spend time watching your child play.

"This can show children that adults value their play," Levin says.

It's not necessary to join in, although that's possible, too, as long as parents don't try to take over. In fact, one highly successful parenting strategy involves spending time each day with your child doing whatever he or she chooses to do.

During this "special time," the child makes the decisions, controls the flow of the play and assigns all roles. It's unstructured play time for your child, yet you get to participate.

Designating some special time with your child forces parents "to slow down, to alter the rhythm of our daily lives in order to make time for each other," Kenison writes in "Mitten Strings for God."

"Given our other obligations and the length of our to-do lists, it is all too easy to forget the good stuff -- namely, how much we actually like our own kids as people, how much we enjoy their company, and how important it is for us to have fun together."

Karen MacPherson can be reached at kmacpherson@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7075.

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