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The Benefits of Unstructured Play for Your Kids

Read time: 3 mins

Do your children spend hours each day in front of a computer screen and not enough time engaging in physical activity? Experts agree that children need at least 60 minutes of exercise per day, and yet many are not getting it.

It’s a common phenomenon and one, which has been blamed to some extent on the advent of technology. But experts believe that it can lead to a vast range of health problems.

“Previously we have seen studies that show increased risk factors for ‘low fit’ children, but we now know the students actually already have cardiovascular disease, at just 15 years of age,” says Professor Niall Moyna, head of the school of health and human performance at Dublin City University.

Unstructured play - Bored Child

It’s an issue that the Irish Life Health School’s Fitness Challenge, a nationwide initiative, which aims to get Irish school children moving, is attempting to tackle.

It is not just physical problems however that can result from a lack of exercise, but psychological ones too, according to Joanna Fortune, a clinical psychotherapist, specialising in child and adolescent psychotherapy.

Modern kids, she says, are suffering from high levels of anxiety due both to lack of exercise and the fact that they don’t get to play by themselves in the open air enough.

Unstructured play - Child on couch

“Modern children spend too much time in their heads,” she says. “They go from school to homework to their computer screens. This leads to a cognitive overload because they don’t get enough time to process the information and the stimuli in their lives, through play.

“The reality is that children need down-time to do nothing, to use their imaginations and explore their sense of self,” she adds. “They need to feel bored and to address this problem themselves. If we don’t recognise this, it has serious repercussions.”

Not only do they feel anxious and irritable, she adds, they frequently lack concentration which can affect their academic studies.

What’s more, many have underdeveloped motor skills as a result of too much screen time. “They lack hand to eye co-ordination and often have underdeveloped muscles,” she says. “All of which will impact very negatively on them later in life.”

It’s a phenomenon, which is very much a symptom of the times we live in and one which we’ve never really had to consider before.

Unstructured play - Little girl playing in park

Partly due to the advent of technology, it’s also the result of increased pressure on parents who are working extra hours and undertaking longer commutes.

“Often parents simply don’t have the time to supervise their children playing outside after school and they rely too much on time at the weekend as a result.”

So, what can you, as a parent, do to address the situation? The obvious answer is to get your kids outside and playing in an unstructured way.

“Even if it is just for 15 or 20 minutes each day, it can make a big difference to their lives,” says Joanna. “Let them loose in the back garden or find a green open space in which they can play.”

She also suggests letting them walk to and from school, which means they are physically tired and therefore more focused when it comes to doing their homework.

Unstructured play - Children playing with a jigsaw

Don’t be deterred by bad weather. “If the weather is bad, wrap your children up and put on some wellies,” says Joanna.

One example she suggests is engaging young children through a nature walk during which they are tasked with finding objects like leaves or conkers. “It’s all about getting them to play in nature and away from the computer screen and anything too structured.”

She also advocates ‘doing’ things in the house, which uses their imagination and involve nature. “Bring some clay home,” she says and have them plant seeds and see them grow.”

Older children, she says will benefit from similar sensory activities but with an added intellectual aspect. “For example, rather than just going for a walk in the park, set them a task to find certain types of leaves or plants,” suggests Joanna. “Or ask them what they would like to do when they get to the park – whether it is football, playing Frisbee or riding their bikes.”

At home, activities like Paper Mache, helping with making the dinner or planting a herb garden are examples of activities which allow them not only to use their imaginations, but to process what they have learnt in school subconsciously.

Finally, Joanna says children take their lead from adults so it’s important to show by example and take time away from the computer or phone yourself.  “There are huge benefits to simple forms of unstructured play for your child,” she adds. “They will improve emotionally, psychologically, cognitively, physically and they are more likely to achieve academically as a result.”

Click here to contact Joanna Fortune