June 9, 2023

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Structured and unstructured play can benefit children

David Bethuram

Summer presents an opportunity for kids to take a break from the increasing demands of the school year. Playing and socializing aren’t simply ways to pass the time; they are valuable tools for learning how to create meaningful relationships, foster communication, acquire new expertise, and ultimately improve self-worth. Camps and community programs, as well as musical and athletic activities offer enriching experiences for kids to attain these essential goals.

Reflecting on our childhood, we likely remember playing with our friends during lunchtime. This could include engaging in a simple game of tag, sporting activities, or even battling imaginary adversaries from our favorite cartoon character. To us, playtime was perceived as a period where we could take a breather from studying. Mental health specialists explain that play is of equivalent importance to our growth as it is to any school-related subject.

Engaging in play is a natural and pleasurable way for children to remain physically active, healthy and content. Allowing children to choose their own play is essential in promoting their physical and mental well-being and teaching them crucial life skills. For these reasons, children need the opportunity for informal play from infancy to adolescence.

Play is essential for a child’s healthy growth and development. When children engage in freely chosen play, they have the autonomy to explore their environment, express their creativity, and even problem-solve under their own terms.

Freely chosen play allows them to lead the activity and determine their own course of action, without any directives from adults. This allows them to gain valuable skills such as confidence, self-esteem, resilience, social skills and curiosity, as well as improve their physical fitness, agility, stamina, coordination and balance. As such, freely chosen play is essential to enhance children’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being.

Playing can be an effective way to help children develop their social skills through interactions with others. Through listening, paying attention and exchanging experiences, a child can better learn how to explore and express their feelings, establish self-discipline and gain insight to emotional aspects of life.

Parents and others who care for kids can strengthen their bond with children by engaging in play activities with them. However, it’s best for the parent or caregiver to let the child take the lead and follow his or her ideas. It’s vital to give children plenty of time to play and grant them the autonomy to decide what they want to do. Too much direction from an adult could be detrimental to the child’s enjoyment of their playtime.

Parents should encourage their children from birth to stretch their boundaries and build their skills. Teach them basic skills such as riding a bicycle, swimming and practicing road safety.

Explain that making mistakes is important, that they should try again, and to trust in themselves. Provide them with fun opportunities for play and set limits for their safety. To promote unstructured play, limit the time children spend on digital devices. Create technology-free zones in the home, such as during meals, outdoors, before bed and in bedrooms.

Instead of relying on digital devices to keep children quiet, focus on talking, playing games or reading books together. Model appropriate screen time by limiting your own and talking with your children about their online activity.

As parents and grandparents, we can appreciate the benefits of both unstructured and structured play. Let’s cherish our time together and show children how to recognize God’s presence in all that we do!

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. You can contact him at dbethuram@archindy.org.) †

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