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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Larson

Why Our Kids Need More Unstructured Playtime

Updated: Jul 30, 2022

“I’m not a creative person.” How often have you heard someone utter this statement? Or perhaps you’ve said this about yourself at some point. In the United States, only half the population believes they are creative.

I recall this question being asked by a professor when I was in graduate school. In a classroom dominated by engineers, hardly anyone raised their hand. And I was shocked.

The challenge is that many people have a narrow definition of the word “creative,” only associating it with strong art and music skills. Ask a bunch of highly analytical engineering students what their strengths are, and “creative” is rarely a word you will hear.

And yet, according to the World Economic Forum, creativity is one of the top three skills workers need to be successful in our future world of work. It’s our ability to “think outside the box” and it is a skill that can be developed in our children, mainly with lots of unstructured playtime.

This week we’re taking a closer look at what it means to be a creative thinker and how we (as parents) can provide opportunities for our children to embrace their creativity.

Creative Thinking - Beyond Art Class

Creative thinking, also referred to as creativity or creative innovation, is highlighted by the Brookings Institution in their recent report on the skills kids need to be prepared for the workplace of the future.

They define creative thinking as the ability to “generate original solutions to problems” and further explain how being a creative thinker depends on our ability to see connections between content and real-world experiences.

All kids are creative. Better yet, creative thinking is a skill that can be further developed in our children.

Being creative requires a person to think outside the box, and to be comfortable doing this. It involves taking risks, and being comfortable exploring the unknown.

But where do kids learn these skills? Research shows the best way for kids to explore and further develop their creative thinking skills is through unstructured playtime. It helps kids make sense of the world around them as they share stories and make up games with their friends.

Unstructured play is about having time to explore without rules. This means devices are down. There are no instructions to follow. And there is no adult in the room guiding children through a sequence of games or activities.

Unstructured play is completely independent playtime, alone or with friends. And before a child discovers how fun unstructured play can be, you are likely to hear the words, “I’m bored!”

The Connection Between Creative Thinking and Recess

I find it interesting to think about the benefits of playtime and then to consider a typical school day for our kids here in the U.S. On average, our kids spend about seven hours a day at school, with anywhere from 15 - 45 minutes of recess time.

With our nation’s obsession around grades and test scores, some schools have cut recess completely in order to maximize learning time for students. The pandemic has only made it worse as school leaders look for ways to address learning loss from the past two years.

Compare this to our friends in Finland, ranked as one of the top educational programs in the world. “First graders in Finland spend only 4 ½ hours a day in school, and a whopping 1 ½ hours of that time is spent on recess or “unstructured outdoor play,” according to Debbie Rhea, an associate dean at Texas Christian University.

Recess used to be viewed as something that took away from learning. Then experts began to see recess as a much needed break for students, and a way to improve a child's focus and success in the classroom. But the benefits are even greater than that.

With recess being one of the rare opportunities for our kids to experience unstructured playtime during their school day, it is one of the only times kids can be actively involved in activities that promote the skills needed for creative thinking.

3 Way to Add Unstructured Playtime to Your Child’s Week

As much as I want to point the finger at our school system and the lack of physical education and recess time allocated for our kids, research shows their experiences outside of school aren’t much better.

Think for a minute about how much unstructured playtime your kids get each day. With many parents focused on building the “perfect resume” for college applications, most kid’s daily schedules are full of sports, clubs and other activities with little time for unstructured play. Downtime with no rules? For many kids, it hardly exists!

Here’s 3 ways to add more unstructured playtime to your child’s week.

1 - Make the Time

This may sound counterintuitive, but consider scheduling unscheduled playtime for your kids each week. For younger children, set aside time after school to visit a park or playground with friends. Or, consider creating a daily “quiet time” hour at home to daydream with no devices. For teens, encourage them to pencil in a few blocks of time each week with no lessons, practice, homework or other commitments.

2- Provide the Supplies

Seek out toys (materials) that foster creativity. Avoid ready-made toys or games and instead give your kids blocks, craft supplies and other items they can explore with. Have a kid that enjoys Legos? Throw out the instructions and let them build something of their own imagination. For teens, consider a musical instrument, journal or sports equipment for a pickup game with friends.

3- Try Something New

Teaching our kids to be curious and to seek out opportunities to explore the world around them is a great way to inspire creativity. Take a walk. Go to a museum. Visit a new restaurant. Switch up their routine. Try something new and share your love of learning with them. The added bonus of exploring with your kids - quality family time!

Join the Discussion

As an entrepreneur, I love opportunities to “throw out the rule book.” It gives us the freedom to be creative and find new ways to solve problems. And it’s an important skill for our kids to learn as well. So be intentional about giving your child some unstructured playtime each week. Create a space without rules, where they can just be a kid.

How do you fit creative time into your child’s weekly routine? We’d love to hear from you!

About the Author

Jennifer Larson is an entrepreneur, charter school founder and mother to four children. Connect with her @startupjen.

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