For more from other sources see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2017/04/05/parents-its-time-to-get-out-of-the-way-and-let-your-kids-just-play/
As I continue my review of the play literature over the past two decades two things strike me, how complicated creating a comprehensive theory of play is, and conversely, how straightforward play is. I won’t go into all the academic stuff here, primarily because as a parent you don’t need to know that. I will, however, list the essential points these scholars generally agree on.
First, and perhaps most important, is that parents can relax and not work so hard at child rearing. It turns out that nature as embedded drives in kids that cause them to seek out the activities they need to develop. These child driven behaviors are very compelling and can be trusted to have the child seek challenges that are best for their maximum growth. In a way, this is a self-evident truth because kids have been growing up in all manner of places and cultures for millennia and, by and large, they do just fine.
The logical conclusion from this observation is that many of the well-intended activities that parent schedule for their children are less beneficial than free play. The ballet class or soccer practice may be stealing time away from an adventure in their kid-made cardboard fort or creating a Heffalump trap in the backyard. Not that organized activities are bad in and of themselves but when they replace natural play they can be detrimental. When selecting structured activities, it is best that the children have a voice in what they want to do and that the program is playful rather than highly directed. It is even better if the programs include mixed ages rather than just limited to same age peers. See: http://www.journalofplay.org/sites/www.journalofplay.org/files/pdf-articles/3-4-article-gray-age-mixed-play.pdf
Of course, the question is how is a parent to know if their child’s self-directed play is what nature intended? It turns out that, while scholars may struggle to define what play is and cannot agree that “You know it when you see it,” for all practical purposes we can not only discern the play of our children but of most animals as well. It seems that not only has nature hardwired kids to play, but it has also given us the ability to spot it unerringly. They are a lot of elements to play that give us clear signals. A “play face” is typical. Bouts of intense play fighting are broken up by timeouts. Punches and bites are moderated. The players tend to be extremely focused, and the play sessions are often of long duration. During play, there is more communication, both verbal and non-verbal.
In addition to being what’s best for children, free play also gives parents a big reward as well. To see how that works let’s look at the sequence of play from birth on. For the first several months, almost all play is between mother and child. During the first couple of years, most play is within the family. By the time a child is out of diapers the play should become increasing among mixed age peers if possible. Parents benefit in two ways by allowing free play to follow its natural course during these years. First, and perhaps most importantly, your child will be happy and self-confident. Many of the difficulties we have with our children are merely because we are asking them to behave in ways that they cannot, i.e., be quiet in a restaurant, go to sleep quickly and for long periods, etc.
Another benefit is that your child will become independent and require less direct supervision which means that your role is more of a monitor than as a director. General household life will be more comfortable. For example, fights over their use of smart devices will be less volatile because your child will have a storehouse of interests that give them as much, or more, pleasure as screen time.
I realize that parents want to give their children the very best chance to be successful. That’s a good thing and admirable. The simple idea in this article is just to let nature help you achieve that goal. It works, and it’s fun!