Researchers have noted that for decades children’s unstructured play time—child-directed play that is not part of some organized activity guided by adults—has been steadily declining.
Lack of free play can seriously influence a child’s emotional development.
Most of us know that play promotes a child’s creativity and imagination, but it also helps them to become confident and competent adults. That’s because unstructured play has a positive effect on a child’s neuron connections, helping build new circuits in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain where emotions are managed.
So, why is there so much decline in free, unstructured play?
For one, parents often restrict free play. Some simply can’t stop hovering over their children and organize their activities each moment of the day. Others are worried about letting their children play outdoors (where much of free play takes place) because they’re concerned about their safety (environmental or due to other people).
On the other hand, as a society, we’re also putting more emphasis on schooling, which includes a stronger focus on academic activities even in kindergarten or preschool. To fit the increase of intellectual activities into a daily schedule, recess has all but vanished from many schools.
Clearly, many do not recognize the value of unstructured play.
As a result of self-directed play time being in decline, researchers also believe that the increase of anxiety and other emotional issues has a direct connection to this lack. Thus, if you have an anxious child, you may want to reevaluate what free play can do for them.
What are some specific benefits of child-directed play time?
5 Ways Free, Imaginative Play Can Benefit Your Anxious Child
Through play, a child learns how to regulate their emotions, including their fears and worries. Over time, this helps them to become confident in maintaining emotional control even during anxious moments. How?
1. Developing of Self-Identity
In school or other adult-directed activities, children have the goal of attaining praise or tangible rewards. Things that benefit them but are also motivated externally.
In free play time, on the other hand, children are motivated internally to benefit themselves, to learn and grow psychologically, defining their own interests and finding their own identity. And that promotes confidence and self-esteem. Two important factors that combat anxiety.
2. Reducing Social Isolation
A lonely child is often an anxious child. Many things in our modern culture increase social isolation. Unstructured, free play can counteract that loneliness and promote a feeling of belonging. Through self-directed play, children learn to treat their peers as equals, learn to make friends, get along, and cooperate with others. All valuable skills to ward off feeling isolated.
Moreover, child-directed play can also help build emotionally stable and safe relationships with adults. Yes, parents can be involved in a child’s free play—just not direct it. Hence, by letting the child take them where they want to go, parents can proactively help reduce their child’s anxiety levels.
3. Boosting Emotional Self-Regulation
A reduced ability to self-regulate emotions can be a key factor in a child developing anxiety. But children can actually learn to manage their emotions through free play.
As they put themselves into challenging and moderately frightening (swinging, sliding, climbing, etc.) situations during unstructured play time, they learn how to control their emotional responses to these stressors. It’s a healthy way for them to learn emotional self-regulation. They themselves are the ones who decide how frightening a situation will be.
4. Increasing Control of Own Life
Children who suffer from anxiety often feel a lack of control over their own lives. Free play promotes a sense of mastery over their play world and, in time, a feeling of more control in life overall. That’s because self-directed play time gives children the opportunity to learn self-control by taking charge of their own actions.
Play calls for children to make decisions, solve problems, make rules and accept restrictions—all by themselves. Beneficial lessons that help them feel a sense of control of their own path in life.
5. Lowering Stress
For a child, play is usually a source of happiness—in particular, unstructured play where nobody else tells them what to do. Sadly, as mentioned at the outset, society is not only progressively curtailing this time of joy for our children, but it’s also adding more stress to their lives through the increase of academics and organized activities.
As parents, we can take steps to counteract that unhealthy trend. By simply giving your child the time and freedom for self-directed play, you can help lower their stress. Thus, helping decrease their anxiety as well.
In our fast-paced, technologically focused world, a tool such as unstructured, child-directed play may seem deceptively (and perhaps unbelievably) simplistic. But as you’ve seen, free play holds immense benefits, not just for all children, but especially for a child with anxiety.
If you would like help to reassess the role unstructured play has in your family and how it could help your anxious child become more emotionally healthy, please contact me.