The instinct to do everything you can to help your children develop is a noble one, of course. There’s a feeling that you should be doing everything you can to help them through guided activities, designed to get the most out of their time. While these “enrichment” and adult-directed activities are a great way to help teach specific skills and foster specific types of development, they can’t fully replace unstructured, kid-focused play.
Yes, guided activities can help your children learn math and reading, and generally get a leg-up as they enter kindergarten and the school system in general. The benefits of that can’t be overstated. But free, unstructured play time has many benefits as well, and ignoring them can also harm your child’s development.
Free play, especially with other children, allows kids to develop their social and emotional skills, as well as problem solving and conflict resolution skills. Active play outdoors helps them develop both gross and fine motor skills – and not just doing that in the context of an organized team sport.
Free play also teaches children the value of independence. When adults are guiding every aspect of a child’s free time, they’re taking away the chances for children to attempt to solve problems and manage conflict on their own. That’s not to say they should be left unsupervised at all times or anything like that; but when play is child-directed instead of adult-directed, they’re the ones speaking up and asserting themselves. They’re the ones working together to work through issues that pop up while playing – whether that’s deciding that that cardboard box will make a perfect fort, or figuring out how to compromise and play together. When adults step in and make these decisions for children, they’re robbing them of the opportunity to learn and grow.
It’s not always smooth and easy – but what is? Play’s been the way children have learned how to interact with their environment long before any guided activities were designed and workshopped. It’s important to just let your children be children at every now and again. Let them play in that mud puddle or climb that tree, and they’ll be better suited to work as an independent person down the line.