Structured vs unstructured play time-maintaining that fine balance!

It’s bad to overhear conversations, but sometimes words just flit into the ears and trigger a chain of thoughts. And this time, without any intentional eavesdropping, I heard an interesting conversation between a few ladies standing close by in a play area. Happy to overhear this interesting tête-à-tête, as my mind spiraled into some serious thinking about children’s playtime, especially after I heard these two mothers, discussing their wards’ schedule.

“Is your daughter in the dance class? How many sessions is she going for?” ‘A’ asked.

“Oh well, it’s just thrice a week”, replied ‘B’ looking exasperated. “I was looking for at least five times a week!”

“Oh, so is it good?”

The lady rolled her eyes and spoke quite solemnly, “There’s no structure in there. The instructor just does something randomly, which to me is mostly like jumping and hopping. Hardly something I can call a structured or proper dance form!”

“Oh so what will she learn in this class?”

“I don’t know what she will learn. At this rate, she will simply hop around like a monkey!”

The ladies chuckled and made ‘sorry’ sounds as if the child’s life had gone for a toss. The funniest part was yet to come. When inquired about the age of their kids, they turned out to be the mothers of just four and five year old kids!

I freaked out as by that standards, I was definitely lagging behind and showing very little seriousness about my child’s (a three year old’s) hobby development. I was just happy to see him cycle, hop, jump, run around and indulge in what as per the ladies was pure ‘Time-pass’. Although, I’d enrolled my son in a gymnastics class for improving his agility and motor skills like co-ordination and balancing skills, but I never focused on structured play in the class, especially at his age!

Was I not doing the right thing? Or was I just a casual mother?

For a few seconds, I heard more as the ladies, whom I’d conveniently called ‘A’ and ‘B’, continued to discuss about other extra-curricular activity classes they’d enrolled their wards into. Be it swimming, singing, dance, clay modelling, painting, cooking to sports, everything was well covered with very little space left to breathe or maybe the latter also had a separate session assigned!

No wonder the children of this generation are so bogged down by persistent competition, or maybe I should rephrase and say ‘in-house’ competition. Are the parents suffering more from ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) than their children, because of which they are constantly chalking out plans and further back up plans for their kids? Well maybe! But, on the contrary my heart goes out to such parents too!

It isn’t wrong to help your child build skills for appropriate activities. The over excited parents, are simply trying to help their child hone a skill, which they believe will assist them in future. However, it’s difficult to understand just how much is too much. Should we just plan activity by activity with time-table precision, without any time to breathe for a kid, whose age spans from 3-5? Isn’t it too early for them to get into the grill of a time-table routine?

How do we manage to balance the equation of structured and unstructured play in the life of preschoolers, focusing on skill building, but at the same time leaving sufficient room to breathe and enjoy the activities? Well, there is no set rule I guess. Both are crucial but striking a sensible balance is what makes a playtime healthy.

If I have to instill a healthy eating habit in my child, I will provide both fruits and vegetables. I won’t choose one over another. Similarly, to incorporate a healthy play habit, I will have to take both, ‘structured’ and ‘unstructured’ play into account as both are crucial in building the right skills in a child.

Structured play time, provides an organized environment to the child, and helps him achieve certain defined end goals in a proper step-by-step process. In short, structured play will help children as young as three year old, respond to instructions, follow directions and do the needful in a tad bit appropriate way. It is crucial for such early preschoolers as they understand how to play and communicate in a team, how to follow instructions and devise their most effective way to achieve the end results.

This type of play can even be referred as ‘play with a purpose’. Its goal oriented, has an organized plan, set rules with defined boundaries. Through ‘structured play’ kids learn about how to work as a team, communicate, manage their emotions, focus on interpersonal or social skills, identify and achieve goals, understand rules and boundaries, develop motor skills, improve co-ordination and stay encouraged towards active play.

Hence, planning some amount of ‘structured play’ for your preschooler is not going to be too bad either. However, take into account the attention span at their age (like a three year old in my case), and target on that fine balance. As a parent, if you can’t figure out an appropriate hobby class, try and subscribe an activity box for that structured skill development or encourage your child to play age-appropriate card or board games, hide and seek, lego games or anything that involves following instructions of sorts. Even regular household work like sorting laundry, matching same colored socks, folding the laundry, keeping the kitchen utensils in place(like the plates and bowls in designated place), planting seeds and watering them. Any close ended jobs are likely to help them work within confined boundaries with clear set rules.

Hence, structured play allows children to solve problems, think strategically and derive enjoyment within confined boundaries.  

Although, as a mother I completely agree to the importance structured play, yet I feel they (kids between 3-5 years) need a higher proportion of unstructured or free play than structured play. In short, in 24 hours, I would plan 3-5 hours (including school hours) of structured play time for my child, with the rest accounting to free-play.

Running, dancing, building sand castle, building blocks, pretend plays, story-telling etc. build their creativity, imagination, the ability to soothe self, improve decision making skills, allows them to be independent, boosts their self-esteem and ups their sense of self-worth and confidence.

Even unstructured or free play among kids, allows opportunities to build social skills by way of negotiating the rules of the game, acting out a part, taking instructions and communicating in an effective way to continue the play and much more. However, if unstructured play can be encouraged outside then it will have additional benefits. The natural outdoor spaces allow the children to move and explore more, take more risks. Children are often interested in natural limitless spaces than pre-structured or fabricated play areas.

Look for outdoor play opportunities, encourage your child to use their imagination to play outside (like hide and seek, building tent etc.) and for toddlers, this could be fruitful. However, exercise precaution and supervision is crucial as children of (3-4 years of age) are still too early to understand about safety and security.

Hence, finding a balance between both these forms of play for your kids will go a long way in building and sustaining their physical and mental well-being. It will further help your child to derive enjoyment and pleasure in both structured and unstructured environments.




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