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The Value of Unstructured Time


Q. It seems like the more we put children in organized day-cares and preschools, and the more curriculum and activities we try to pack into the school day, the less happy they are. Is the next generation going to be anxious, distractible and easily bored? Are we wrong to invest all this additional time and money into their formal educations, instead of letting them grow up more naturally?


Probably so. Child development experts are gravely concerned about the loss of play time. Free play is how children develop collaboration, critical thinking, confidence and other skills. But in a misplaced effort to help children's educational progress, unstructured time is being cut out of their daily lives by well-meaning parents and educators who are placing more children in more organized, structured settings.


The preschool "doll corner" for imaginative play, and the hours spent just messing around in a sandbox, are being replaced by adult-supervised group activities and incessant assessment and evaluation, which add to the pressure on young children. For grade-schoolers, play dates with friends are replaced by lessons, tutoring or organized sports . . . neighborhoods are deemed too dangerous for long bike explorations or playing in the weedlot, so kids stay in organized after-school programs . . . every minute of every school day is slightly rushed and tightly focused on standards and assessments. . . .


No wonder childhood obesity, anxiety, depression and Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity
Disorder all are on the rise. Kids are literally going "tilt."


The increased programming is directly connected to finances. Higher salaries for educators have to be justified to the public, so let's give them more to do. More bang for the preschool buck has to be proven to parents or they won't enroll their child, so let's jazz up our offerings. Better value for the budget dollar has to be shown to the elected school boards, so let's jack up our time-on-task and keep these kids busy, and if we have to carve time away from recess, lunch and bathroom breaks, oh well.


This is why the amount of the typical day that a young child spends in group activities under adult supervision, doing what the adult has scripted out, is vastly higher than a generation or two ago. But we're doing this to our peril. Children who have lots of unstructured time, who are mostly reared in their own homes, with few or merely part-time child-care or preschool experiences out of the home, generally do much better in school, in life achievement and in personal satisfaction measures.


But instead of arranging it so that more children can have the advantages of a relaxed, self-paced childhood, we're investing in more and more out-of-home early childhood, school-based preschool, before-and-after school programs, longer school days and longer school years.


Parents can, and should, intervene. Job One: try to keep your child's out-of-home preschool experience part-time, not full-time. Choose a preschool that offers a lot of free, unstructured play time. When you're selecting a preschool, school or latchkey situation, be sure to ask the staff what they think about unstructured time. If they're for it, that's good. It's the same thing when you choose a grade school: is recess time generous, and are there any restrictions on how the kids can play or who they can play with? Is the lunch break long enough? How much time, if any, do the students get to decide what to do?


Increasingly, voices are being raised to plead for parents to be sure to insist on free play, and to design their child's day for it . . . because the best way to teach a child is sometimes, very strategically, to leave him or her alone.


Homework: The loss of free play in early childhood is especially hard on boys. See the book, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, by psychologist Michael Thompson.


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 149 2008


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