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Unstructured Play and the Development of School-Related Skills

Play is crucial to our development as children and I would argue an essential component to student success throughout school age years and even into adulthood. Children naturally seek play as a means of learning and understanding things in their environment. Engagement in play allows children to safely experiment, control, and practice situations that may happen in school.

Parents often ask me during IEP meetings what it is that they can do for their children to improve the areas of concern I've identified in my reports. Most of the time they are looking for work that they can do at home with their son or daughter in order to help them improve their sensory processing, fine motor skills, or social skills.

I have typically provided them with worksheets and handouts on sensory processing and activities they can do with the child at home. However more recently I have become inspired to take a different approach.

I have given up telling parents to work on this or that skill in the home and instead have begun asking them to provide opportunities for playing. I most recently told a mother just a few weeks ago to get her daughter outside and play, building forts, playing with a ball, in the park on equipment. Anything that would be child directed could work. I provided her with information that pointed to the skills her daughter could develop through just good old fashioned play experiences. She looked at me oddly, but then agreed that she would like to be doing more of these things with her daughter instead of pushing more schoolwork on to her.

School is difficult as it is and providing parents with more “homework” or practice can lead to further stress on the students as well as their families. Play is a motivating way in which to help children develop occupational performance and participation in many areas relevant to school and classroom performance. Play has the added benefit of giving both parents and their children with much needed stress relief, time to bond, and prepares your brain for learning in school more so than worksheets and handwriting practice.

So Let’s explore the benefits of play experiences for learning and child development so I can make my case for less handwriting practice and hopefully less copies.

Play is often conducted by children for its own sake and is described by The National Institute for Play as “ the catalyst for learning at any age”. Play is self-motivated and therefore more often therefore inherently engaging (if it were not you would not be playing!) There are two types of play structured and unstructured. I am going to be making the case for providing children and students for ample opportunities for unstructured play as I personally have seen a decline in this specific type of experience since I was in grade school. Structured play opportunities are no less important; however I will be discussing the benefits of unstructured play here. Keep your eye out for an article on structured play!

Unstructured play is defined usually as child-led activity without having any specific goal or purpose. In other words “letting kids be kids”! Unstructured play during recess has been found in research to provide children with better achievement outcomes, increased physical health and better socialization skills. During unstructured play children are responsible for regulating themselves and often times will challenge themselves by taking their own self-controlled or self-calculated risks. This allows them to develop the self-control in order to achieve their goals.

I can think of multiple examples from my own childhood. I had the amazing opportunities for unstructured play growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania. I lived in a small town with ample opportunities for unstructured play. My neighborhood was safe and in a small town people typically look out for each other and so my parents would allow us to leave the house on bike trips, play outside with the other kids in the neighborhood unsupervised, or go to the ballfields on our own. I was also lucky enough to live a short bike ride away from my grandparents' house where “The Hill” existed.

“The Hill” was large, steep, and daunting to any elementary age kid. In our eyes a true challenge worthy of a full summer afternoon. There were trees and ropes my grandpa had left up from when he would create a Christmas light display in the winter on the steep parts. Every summer my sister and I would bring friends to my grandmother’s house to go on expeditions up “The Hill”. We would spend all afternoon using ropes, trees, and root systems in order to get to the top and return in time for dinner. There were no adults present and more often than not we would return home with ripped clothing, scrapes, and covered in dirt. Occasionally my grandma would yell up to us and we would yell down to her letting her know we were alright and that was about all the adult supervision we had and needed.

Looking back as an occupational therapist I think of the skills, team building, problem solving, muscle development, and self-regulation it took in order to get to the top and return. I remember feeling this sense of achievement shared by my friends once we reached the top. It gave us a sense of confidence that was unparalleled to anything else I had experienced as a kid. It was an entirely child-directed experience and we had done it ourselves, which for many children is a rare opportunity.

Many skills gained during unstructured play can be utilized within the daily lives of children. Unstructured play provides children with much needed downtime and the opportunities to make their own independent decisions and then test those choices outside of the influence of grown-ups. Some of the skills developed through unstructured play are those that occupational therapists frequently address within the school setting and can include motor skills development, self-regulation, and social skills.

Children learn how to engage and control their bodies through the occupation of play, which from an occupational therapist’s perspective, is the best and most successful way they can learn these skills. Unstructured play provides an excellent opportunity for both gross motor and fine motor development. Kids can learn to develop an understanding of their own body (proprioceptive, vestibular, visual and tactile systems) through climbing, pushing, pulling, and swinging better during motivating play activities than any experiences provided in therapy (which is essentially what we attempt to create in therapy). These gross motor skills and overall strengthening lead to increase distal control for more the more refined movements of our smaller muscles. Developing core control and strength helps children to maintain sitting balance in order to engage in desktop classroom tasks that require the stability of their core to complete the fine motor work of handwriting and cutting. From an occupational therapist’s perspective, engagement in play is one of the best ways for children to develop these skills because it is done so naturally through a child-centered occupation.

Unstructured play opportunities provide children the opportunities to develop much needed executive functioning skills needed for self-regulation, self-advocacy, problem solving and risk taking. In climbing the hill behind my grandmother’s house we were not just developing our sensory systems and motor skills we were also developing our abilities to adapt to change, measure risk, regulate our responses to fear (coming down often times lead to sliding on our bottoms a time or two), problem solve, and advocate for ourselves when we needed assistance. These skills are necessary to classroom performance. We were not prompted by our parents or watchful adults on the hill, but had to develop and trust our own abilities to reason through those risks, create, and execute our own plans in order to achieve a self-set goal. These are not just skills needed to succeed in the classroom, but often times are necessary in order to become successful adults.

Social skills were developed through overcoming the challenge of climbing the hill with our friends. We would argue about the best routes to take, help out when someone was struggling to make it, and establish a bond through having achieved something together as a group. Adults often times will interfere with peer conflict in children and this can take away the valuable experience children gain when they learn to resolve conflicts on their own. On the hill there were no grown ups to tell us not to fight, we had to decide those things for ourselves if we were going to get to the top and back down before dinner. As children in a social group we decided the rules for our journey and learned how to advocate for our needs within the group. None of those skills could be developed as successfully or quickly with adult intervention.

So I say when children get home from school in place of handwriting practice or more worksheets we get parents and students outside and playing. Unstructured play appears to be a rarity in the lives of over-scheduled students, iPads, and testing, but it provides invaluable opportunities for children to develop skills necessary for them to achieve within their lives and school setting. Playing gives a much needed break for our brains, an opportunity to engage in creativity, and a means of connecting with each other. I would encourage occupational therapists to promote unstructured play at schools and outside of schools as our students are in desperate need of these opportunities!

Thank you for reading! I would love to hear your comments below. For some play activities you can incorporate in class on rainy days, check out our post "7 OT Approved Alternative Indoor Recess Ideas"

Here are some resources should you want to learn more about the benefits of play:


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