The Results Are in: Less Structure and More Free Play for Our Kids

Studies confirm that childhood is way more complicated than it needs to be. Cut back on the structured schedule and make way for free play.

Are kids overscheduled? Parents certainly think so. A recent study revealed that 90 percent of Canadian parents agree that too many kids’ activities can be overwhelming—for both the kids and the parents—and 80 percent of parents agree childhood is generally ‘more complicated than it needs to be’.

It’s a concern shared by parents around the globe. Parents from the U.S., Finland, Mexico, China, France and Russia all echoed the same sentiment: kids are overscheduled.

The numbers paint a stark portrait, and we wanted to know more, so I asked Dr. Deb Weber, Director of Early Childhood Development Research at Fisher-Price, to discuss the topic in more detail.

AD: Do you believe children today are over scheduled? 
DW: As a mom of two, I’m aware of the pressure parents feel the need to fill their children’s time with scheduled activities. From personal experience, I know I’m not alone in that sentiment.

This is not just a Canadian trend. A survey conducted by Fisher-Price went out to parents from six other countries (U.S., Finland, Mexico, China, France and Russia) and the majority of those parents view the world as more competitive for kids today. Additionally, 4 in 5 parents feel children are growing up too quickly.

AD: How is this detrimental to a child’s development? 
DW: Just like adults, children can get stressed out when they don’t have downtime to recharge. For some people, that means time to read a book. For me, it’s being active outdoors–biking, running, skiing. But for children, their downtime is usually filled with structured and unstructured play. And play is how children learn best. It’s in those play-filled moments that they figure out how things work, dream up stories, explore the world around them, and find their interests. Play–and therefore unscheduled time in the day–is essential to a child’s development, path to self-discovery and love of learning.

AD: What would an overly scheduled week look like? How do parents decide when it’s too much, and how and when should a parent know to draw the line?   
DW: There is no one-schedule-fits-all. Every child is different. However, children thrive on routine. They want to know what’s coming next. If their week follows a predictable pattern of activities and commitments, they may not experience stress that is related to overscheduling. The best way for a parent to know when their child has reached their limit is to listen to them and read the signs. If you notice a drastic change in behavior and emotions (showing signs of being clingy, sad, withdrawn or angry, or an increase in crying or tantrums), change in regular sleep or eating habits, complaints of physical ailments such as stomach aches, or depending on your child’s age they may actually tell you they don’t want to go, they need a break. Sometimes as parents we have to remind ourselves of the benefits of boredom in childhood. Unscheduled downtime is okay; this will be the time your child is able to flex their imagination.

AD: How would you define ‘structured’ and ‘unstructured’ play? Are they the same?                   
DW: They’re not the same, but equally important. Structured play usually has rules or specific objectives, like playing the game red-light-green-light or completing a puzzle. Unstructured play is more open-ended, like playing with blocks or role-play/dress up activities, and it’s child-led.

AD: What is the importance of unstructured and structured play experiences?                                 
DW: Caregivers and teachers have observed the importance of and benefits associated with play in informal settings such as the home and classroom for decades. Researchers have taken a keen interest in play as well, studying the impact of solitary play and social play with peers. What do we know about play? Play is innate and fundamental to the healthy development of children; of all individuals. Structured and unstructured play experiences are particularly beneficial in developing creativity, leadership, confidence, communication, problem solving skills, and social-emotional intelligence. Play affords children the natural opportunity to discover their own interests. They can choose to become an expert in their play, sharing their new discoveries with others and developing a love of learning that is intrinsically motivated through the mode of play.

AD: How much unstructured play would you recommend in a regular week? 
DW: It’s really a balance. You don’t eat fruits OR vegetables—you need both. The same goes for structured and unstructured play for healthy development. We know from our own research that kids under 3 years-old are getting about 4.5 hours of playtime every day. That includes play indoors and outside, alone and with others, and quiet and active play. I wouldn’t expect parents to be clocking every minute of playtime their child gets, but it’s just being mindful to ensure children experience both when they play.

AD: Is there such thing as too much unstructured play? 
DW: Again, it’s all about the balance.

AD: How much should parents be involved in their child’s play?                                             
DW: Parents and children benefit greatly from engaging in child-led play together. Parents get to see the world through their child’s eyes and witness all those first discoveries as their little personalities emerge. They learn about their child’s interests, where they struggle, what makes them laugh. But as a working parent, I recognize it’s not always easy to play with your child given all the other responsibilities on our plates. So when you are able and free to jump in, go for it! I guarantee you and your child will both learn something from the experience and most importantly, you will have fun together.

AD: What are some toys you would recommend to facilitate learning during play time?                                    
DW: There are so many! My team of child development experts make sure children get the most out of playtime. We collaborate with the marketers, designers and engineers to bake vitamins in your chocolate cake–or in the world of play– developmental benefits in each toy. We also offer product ideas to help keep children engaged in play. Here are a few of my favourites:

0-6 month old:
At this very early stage of development, it’s all about sensory stimulation and motor skill development. The Kick ‘n Play Piano Gym’s music, friendly characters, colorful patterns and mirror help stimulate baby’s auditory and visual senses. The piano keys help strengthen gross motor skills as baby stretches and kicks. As baby moves from lay and play to sit-at play, they will continue the gross motor skill building by batting at the keys with their fingers and hands. Five busy activity toys (including a large mirror) encourage baby to bat and grasp.

6 months old+:
The Rock-a-Stack is used to introduce colors, order, size words, and more. As baby sorts and stacks the rings (any way they like) they will strengthen and refine developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Or to add variety, you can make the play a little more structured by helping baby stack the rings as intended by offering them one at a time. As you hand them a ring, label the rings color and use numbers or size words as additional descriptors. ‘One BIG blue ring!’, and ‘Next is a green ring!’

There is also the soft and cuddly Puppy & Sis that features loads of learning content, including 50 sing-along songs, tunes, and phrases that can level up as your baby grows. Puppy & Sis make sure learning never ends, responding to baby’s touch with silly sayings and lively sing-along songs about body parts, feelings and more. They also act as a familiar friend for infants and toddlers, assisting with difficult transitions or separation anxiety as baby can give them a squeeze or hug when needed.

Walkers are great for babies who are working up to their first steps. For the sitting baby, there are tons of hands-on activities to explore, plus a book to turn or light-up buttons to press. For standing babies, the walker helps with balance and coordination, and then encourages those first steps as baby becomes more confident on their feet. When they’re cruising, parents can add some structure to the play by creating an obstacle course and encouraging baby to maneuver around the objects.

3+ years:

The world is a buzz with all things coding right now. The Code-a-pillar is a preschool-friendly way to introduce coding fundamentals in the form of a cute and engaging caterpillar. At first, your child might enjoy just putting the segments in random order to see what happens. But the more they play, the more they may have a specific outcome in mind that they need to solve for. Parents can get in on the play by offering a list of locations within the immediate environment the Code-a-pillar must travel to, like from the couch to coffee table to TV. You determine the locations and the order in which the Code-a-pillar must reach them, but let your child execute the activity independently. You get to enjoy the experience of watching your child work through how to fulfill the task you have given them! Your child will be able to demonstrate their ability to follow instructions demonstrating their language comprehension and memory skills, as well as their ability to plan and sequence.

AD: How does imagination assist child development? 
DW: Children usually start to use their imaginations through pretend play at around 15 months old. Usually this is in the form of imitating everyday activities they see their caretakers engage in: talking on the phone, cooking, driving, getting the mail, etc. Through pretend play, children have the opportunity to learn to share, negotiate, give instructions and compromise. They also gain the ability to self-regulate their impulses and emotions. Pretend play allows children the opportunity to express both positive and negative feelings in a safe setting, additionally pretend play in a group setting introduces children to patience and delay of gratification as they may find they must wait their turn to add to the storyline or take a back seat while another participant further develops their character or storyline.  As children get older their imagination often leads to more detail-rich storytelling which helps develop literacy skills.


Leave a Comment