Why unstructured play is good for the brain and 10 things to do.

Anyone who reads this blog know that I am a big advocate of unstructuring experiences. I advocate this because I believe that it is just good for people to slow down and interact in low tech ways. It isn’t that I don’t think that technology has its place it’s that I think that we have taken it out of its place and given technology reign over areas of our lives where technology is more hindrance than help.

I was of this opinion before I had much more than an intuitive sense based on personal observations about how people behaved in different situations. Children I watched, who grew up without much in the way of high tech tools learned to problem solve and self entertain. When presented with the technology these children adapted to the technology rapidly and applied their problem solving skills to mastering the new tool. They also knew how to leave the technology behind and go self entertain. Children who grew up in front of TVs or computer baby sitters did not know how to make use of low tech entertainments and it took some intervention for them to adapt to this way of being. Whole adventure/outdoor ed programs are geared around moving these children out of their comfort zone and empowering them to be self reliant team players able solve problems with minimum equipment and adult intervention. The problem is that these programs are limited in their reach. Too many children can’t access them and therefor do not benefit.

The better solution is to limit access to high tech toys, especially for young people, and provide low tech toys that they can manipulate with mind and body. Educational psychologists tell us that early childhood brain development is all about building dendrites. Televisions build different dendrite pathways than low tech toys and unstructured play do.

Note, the key word here is unstructured, not unsupervised. Young children lack experience to make smart, safe decisions. Adults, need to be present and observant while children play with simple, age appropriate toys. Telling a story with a stuffed animal is an example of simple unstructured play. For non-verbal children this story can be a series of actions that correspond to a simple verbal story the adult tells. This teaches kids language, imagination, and interaction with others in an appropriate way. As the child becomes more advanced the play grows with her but stays low tech and unstructured.

At this point, I will add that structured play, like games and sports, has a role, but I think it is over emphasized in our culture and so this post is geared towards the benefits of the unstructured.

Returning to unstructured play is simple. And cheap.

  1. Look at a picture book and tell stories based on the pictures. Ignore the words and make it all up. Sillier is better.
  2. Put away the fancy tapes and music devices and have a sing along. Make up silly songs to each other. Kids do this naturally anyway. Join in. Carrying tunes is optional.
  3. Lie on the grass and pick out cloud shapes.
  4. Stack blocks.
  5. Knock them down.
  6. Play dress up.
  7. Play tag.
  8. Have a water fight. Or a snowball fight. Or a nerf ball fight.
  9. Take a walk.
  10. Make up names for the things you see.
  11. Above all, HAVE FUN!

For more information on the value of play go here:

University of Michigan Child Development and Behavior Resources.

Scott Eberly’s TED talk.

Play Again.

If you have favorite unstructured things you do, leave them in the comments.

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