Five rules for summer play

Strategies to support authentic play experiences during summertime.

Chidren need authentic play experiences.
Chidren need authentic play experiences.

As summer arrives, more and more families find their schedules packed with endless activities, such as summer camp, soccer lessons, dance camp and swimming lessons. Between work and structured activities, many children have very little time for unstructured free play. Play is so important that it has been recognized by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights as the right of every child. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that play, or free time in the case of older children and youth, is essential to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth.

Why is free play so important? Play allows children to use creativity, imagination, dexterity as well as physical, cognitive, social and emotional skills. Play has been recognized as being important to healthy brain development and the development of critical executive functioning skills such as focus, perspective-taking, communication and critical thinking. Through play, children are able to interact, process and make sense of the world around them. Unstructured play allows children to work collaboratively and solve problems, negotiate and learn to advocate for themselves.

Thinking back to your childhood, what are some of your favorite memories of summertime play? Building a fort, climbing trees, going bike riding with friends, playing outside until the streetlights came on? How many of those experiences have your children been able to have? It’s important to step back occasionally and evaluate how your family is using their time, and to create time for children to have free time and authentic play experiences. Michigan State University Extension recommends the following “rules” for supporting authentic-play experiences.

Rule 1: Play outside whenever possible

Being outside allows children to be physically active, gain and master important physical skills and have a greater sense of freedom. Outdoor play dynamics are different than indoors. Children use different social and emotional skills to engage with each other in this space. They can be louder, move faster, run, climb and test their physical limits.

A recent University of Michigan Institute for Social Research report, “Changing Times of American Youth: 1981-2003,” found that the average child in America between the ages of 6 and 17 spends just seven minutes a day engaged in unstructured outdoor play. This represents a 50 percent decline in the past 20 years. Encourage your children to turn off their electronic devices and head outside this summer!

Rule 2: Taking risks is OK

Children learn a lot about their skills and abilities when they are able to try to accomplish skills and tasks without adult interference. The movements associated with risky play such as climbing, swinging, rolling, hanging and sliding are more than just fun, they are essential for children’s motor development, balance, coordination and body awareness. Allow children to struggle, succeed and fail, and to do things like climbing or crossing monkey bars on the playground. Resist the temptation to help them, and instead encourage them to try. When adults refrain from helping children, they are able to figure out what they can safely accomplish on their own, increasing their self-confidence, perseverance and reliance. It is important adults in children’s lives recognize the value of risky play and allow for these experiences to happen.

Rule 3: Kids make the rules

Of course there needs to be some adult supervision, but on the whole, let children create the rules to their own play. It’s easy to step in and stop things that fall out of our set adult mentality. Are they pretending to be mountain climbers and climb up the slide to the camp at the top? What is wrong with going up the slide if everyone else is going up the slide as well? Challenge your own pre-conceived notions of “how things should be” and look at the experience children are gaining.

By allowing children to set their own rules for play, we support critical social and emotional skills and their growing ability to problem-solve. The point here isn’t to avoid interfering in situations that are potentially harmful, unfair or unsafe, but rather to give kids the freedom to create their own play frame without having to conform to pre-set notions of what adults think they should do or not do.

Rule 4: Getting dirty is OK

Summertime is a great time to let kids get outside, messy, dirty and generally have fun without worrying about the condition of their clothes. Water and sensory play, or play that stimulates children’s senses, are great for children’s development in many areas. Cognitive skills are supported in so many areas when children are allowed to explore and problem-solve. Linguistic, social and emotional skills are engaged as children work side-by-side and talk about what they’re experiencing. Physical, fine and large motor skills grow, and children use their hands and bodies to pour, scoop, dig and otherwise manipulate materials. A little bit of dirt and mess never hurt anyone!

Rule 5: Let them be bored

In a world dominated by the instant gratification of hand-held electronic games and videos on-demand, it’s not uncommon to hear a chorus of “I’m bored” as soon as the television or video games are turned off. Let children be bored and create their own play. Complex play, the kind we might remember as children, takes time to develop. It involves rules, conversation, negotiation and organization on their part, not ours. In order to support the development of complex play, adults need to resist the temptation to give children something to do. Let them work it out, and watch. You might be surprised how involved and complex their play becomes when adults don’t interfere.

As Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child.” Play experiences are essential to healthy development. As you’re planning your children’s summer, try to make time for play. Look for the trees to climb, the puddles to jump in and the opportunities to say yes instead of no.

For more information about early childhood education and other topics, visit the MSU Extension website.

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