With the next few Kidtinuum entries, I’ll try to address some of the downsides—or perceived downsides—of unstructured play. I’ll start with one raised by a parent whose son, Andrew, is a lot like Jamie from the Kidtinuum article of a couple of weeks ago—highly inquisitive and always enthralled with some new idea or experiment.
One thing stands out the most: Andrew [like Leonardo da Vinci] loves to start on something interesting, but seldom finishes what he started. While in the midst of doing one thing, he often gets distracted by something else that he finds interesting (of which there are MANY!). Sometimes he’ll get back to the original problem after going around the universe through many other tangents, but other times he’ll never get back to it. It has been a challenge for all of us to try to help him follow through, because there are just WAY TOO MANY THINGS for him to follow through with. I guess that’s one of the problems with “unstructured play,” though the advantages are many! The real excitement is mainly in the exploration itself—learning and discovering new things, making up or hypothesizing and proving things … and finding so much joy in doing so! That is priceless!!!!!
I can identify with Andrew because I was—am—him. I’ve always been more of an “idea” person than a finisher. But I can also identify with his mom, because as a teacher I regularly expect my students to commit to a task and follow it through to completion. I am often frustrated, though, by the brilliant but fickle students who would follow the most fleeting flight of fancy at the expense of finishing the assignment.
So providing structure is one way of reigning in the free-flowing, zig-zagging mindset that unstructured play encourages. By limiting the possibilities for engagement, one can better direct that engagement. There are important lessons here for children about goals and focus and the value of a finished product.
But kids have many opportunities to get that structure and learn those lessons in their more structured activities—school, sports, church groups, etc. The huge benefit of providing time for unstructured play is evident in Andrew’s mom’s observation at the end of her comment: a priceless process of exploration.
Kids need a balance, and Andrew’s mom clearly understands this—just look at her use of capital letters and exclamation points. Her exasperation with Andrew’s unstructured flightiness warrants five capitalized words, and her joy at Andrew’s love of discovery receives five exclamation points to emphasize that it’s priceless. This is our job as parents and educators: balance the opportunities and lessons that our children receive, and balance the messages they get from us. When it’s time for structure, let them see we mean business, but when it’s time for uninhibited exploration, let them see our joy in their discoveries.