In this series of articles, we’ve been looking at the merits of physical activity for children, typically in a class environment. But sport doesn’t always need to be structured or planned. In fact, there can be many benefits in allowing children to play with no direction from sports coaches or teachers – often known as ‘free play’.
Unstructured play for children can take many forms, as long as it’s child-led. It can involve role play activities with friends and siblings, or solitary activity like pretend fighting or jumping, to name a few.
While activities should always be supervised, there are many benefits in allowing children the freedom to play sport on their own. Here’s just a few:
- Helps to establish voluntary motor control
The repetition involved in free play sport, often found in kicking a ball, or jumping over obstacle’s, is all part of the learning process. This kind of physical activity for children is actually helping them to hone voluntary motor skills in the process.
- Develops creativity
Children have great imaginations – a skill that is nurtured with free play. Watch any child pretend playing, hitting a tennis ball or play fighting on their own, and you’ll notice that they’re often in their own happy world. Look closer and you’ll see that they have created a scenario, proving that unstructured play for children can really boost creative thinking.
- Helps children become more active
Any kind of sport for children is great in promoting physical activity. Being active is an important part of a child’s development. Guidelines suggest that kids and teens should have at least an hour a day of modern to vigorous exercise. Unstructured play is one of the best ways to encourage this.
- Lets children think for themselves
Children’s lives are rigorously monitored and controlled by teachers, parents, childminders and sports coaches. Free play however, offers a rare opportunity for a child to be unburdened from the constraints of rules. This in turn allows children to think for themselves and develop their own ways of working and personal style. This is important in developing independent thinking.
- Lets children use their imagination
Unstructured play for children is a great way for imaginations to develop. It encourages children to play without limitations; from fighting dragons to running after robbers – it’s a great way to develop young and flourishing minds!
- Develops strength and muscles
Free play is every bit as beneficial to a child, as other forms of sport. Anything that gets their heart pumping and keeps them active will be helping to develop their lungs, muscles and strengthen their bones at the same time.
- Improves concentration
When children play, they are fine-tuning their gross motor skills. Sport is no exception, including unstructured playtime. It teaches children vital skills, from learning to listen to paying attention to detail. Studies have even found that just an hour of exercise a day, of any kind, can enhance children’s concentration levels.
- Teaches them life skills
Learning important life skills is just one way that unstructured play for children can be beneficial. With no limitations, children are able to push boundaries, make mistakes, correct mistakes and learn valuable lessons in doing so.
- Develops emotional awareness
Unstructured sport for children helps to build emotional intelligence on a number of levels. Such as, learning to take criticism or failure with grace, understanding the importance of turn taking, and managing emotions of winning and losing in a public forum.
- Encourages children to explore new ideas
When children are free to play without limitations, their creativity knows no bounds. This allows them to explore new ideas, develop their own rules and thoughts in an unrestricted way.
- Helps cognitive and emotional development
Years of research have shown that play is crucial in child development. Experts believe that play and sport for children provides pathways to “love and social connection” as well as learning; mutual respect, friendship, cooperation and coordination.
- Teaches children how to work together
Unstructured physical activity for children doesn’t necessary mean solitary play. It can be as simple as a game of ‘tag’, or just kicking a football around in the back of a school yard. However, even these very rudimentary forms of play are teaching them valuable life lessons, including how to play with others.
- Develops spatial cognition
Toddlers especially have very little awareness of keeping an acceptable distance from people. This is a learnt skill, one that can be honed by playing with others. Children learn to develop spatial cognition as they naturally develop, and unstructured play for children is a great way to learn social norms.
- Improves problem-solving skills
According to studies, play changes the structure of the developing brain, strengthening nerve cell connections in the prefrontal cortex. In short, this means that children who play in this way are able to deal with new experiences and find solutions to problems better. If nothing else, it teaches little ones how to deal with unexpected scenarios, which is a gift in today’s fast-paced world.
- Improves decision-making skills
Child development through sport includes decision-making skills. This is developed when children are forced into leadership positions, and have to make decisions and rules for themselves.
- Allows children to play at their own pace
With such busy schedules and demanding lives, it’s important for children to have the flexibility to play at their own pace. Unstructured play is one of the many ways that allows children to explore and develop creatively, without any agenda.
- Reduces stress
Temper tantrums are all-too common in youngsters. However, physical activity for children is a great outlet for getting rid of pent up aggression and running off steam. This is especially true of sport that has no boundaries, allowing children to manage their emotions and feelings.
- Improves mood
Physical exercise is known to release ‘feel good’ endorphins. Even a walk in the park is effective in combating stress and improving overall mood. The great benefit of unstructured play for children is that it can happen anywhere; running in the woods, pretend play in the back garden and climbing frames at soft play for instance.
- Develops autonomy
In comparison to a formal class with a sports coach, unstructured play allows a child to develop autonomy. It is one of the best ways to exert personal control over one’s actions, and take responsibility for those actions. This is a beneficial life-long skill to have, along with the many other perks of unstructured play.