Unstructured Play and Healthy Risk-taking

It’s difficult to believe that the importance of play for children is only now re-entering the zeitgeist. It’s almost like suddenly realizing that love and affirmation is important to human development, or that a good night’s sleep and a balanced diet is advantageous to our health. Obvious, to say the least, yes? I don’t want to pat ourselves on the back but people in -the- know in child development have always emphatically espoused that creative play is vital for all aspects of children's health and development. Wasn’t anyone listening?

In a Time article from August 26, Why Playing Tag is as Important to Your Kids’ Future As Reading, Dr, Alison Bryant, a former researcher and current director at PlayScience, was interviewed about why unstructured play is important for children’s development. She cites neuropsychological studies that show that unstructured play (that is, play that’s child-driven and child-directed, spontaneous and creative) directly effects the formation of neural pathways in children’s brains. This creates the neural mechanisms that lead to independent thought, and collaborative and communicative behavior. This translates into emotional and intellectual health and happiness, because kids become better able to get along with others, think on their feet and adapt to new situations. Isn’t this precisely what we want for our children?

This is not to say that games with pre-arranged rules and structure aren’t good for kids. They are as well. But it’s the unstructured type of play that’s been neglected as of late, and parents and educators need to know that time for ‘messy’, on-the spot, fluid games devised by kids themselves are very very valuable.

Dr. Bryant talks about unstructured play as being ‘experimental’ and admits to staying away from the word ‘risk’ because she believes it makes adults uncomfortable. She refers to the fact that other cultures allow children to encounter physical risks in parks and after-school classes, sometimes of a dangerous nature; one example she uses is a cooking class that allows young children to use sharp knives.

However, productive risk -taking doesn’t have to involve knives. In fact, it shouldn’t. In my book entitled “Raising Children Who Soar: A Guide to Positive Risk-Taking in an Uncertain World” (Teachers College Press, 2009, co-authored with Nancy Eppler-Wolff) we show how positive risks are essential for healthy development and can be taught to children. Risk is not a bad word. Learning how to take well-thought out, non-impulsive risks that push us to try new things, stretch our abilities, seek out situations that challenge us, is key to becoming our full selves and, we believe, lessens the tendency to take poor risks in childhood and, importantly, in adolescence. It can be scary at times (for parents as well for kids) but children need to learn to weigh out the potential risk or failure of an action along with the potential upside. They may decide that there’s more to gain by trying out for the school play, or asking a new friend for a play date, or just ‘going-for-it ‘, despite the anxiety that goes along with it, We all feel brave and proud of ourselves when we take a good risk, even if it doesn’t work out as we wanted. And... often it does.

Positive risks are ever-present at all ages and are different for different children. Parents and educators can learn to be aware of the ways that particular children might be encouraged to take small steps toward these positive risks that develop self-esteem, independence and resiliency.

Unstructured play is full of all sorts of good risks since the adults are not hovering, directing, or moderating. Shins and feelings may be skinned in the process. But children must be given experiences that allow them to learn to negotiate this terrain on their own; adults can listen and advise outside of the time and place of the play. This doesn’t mean adults cannot supervise and perhaps step in if need be, but there’s much to gain by staying on the side-lines and allowing children to create, manage and negotiate amongst themselves . This can be a risk for many a parent. However if your kids can do it, so can you.

Susan Davis, Ph.D is a clinical psychologist in private practice and co-author of Raising Children Who Soar: A Guide to Healthy Risk-Taking in an Uncertain World. She’s on the advisory board of The Meeting House After-School Program. www.raisingchildrenwhosoar.com @drsusandavisnyc