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Finding Balance with Creative Play and Organized Activity

January 8, 2011

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This past week I read two articles* which highlighted the importance of play and creative expression for children. As I read them, I found myself nodding in agreement with the psychologists quoted in the articles. For example, I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Alison Gopnick’s statement that, “Parents should appreciate that babies and young children are incredibly smart, but the way that their intelligence expresses itself is through their everyday explorations and interactions with the people around them and with everyday objects, not through being in structured classes or having explicit pedagogical kinds of teaching.” And when Hilary Stout writes that psychologists and other experts, “say that most of the social and intellectual skills one needs to succeed in life and work are first developed through childhood play,” I concur.

But as a mom, I also found myself looking at my own family and the choices we have made with regard to our children’s involvement in organized, structured activities and lessons. I will be the first to admit that my family is very, very busy and possibly even over-scheduled. My kids also enjoy time on the computer, texting (my teenagers), and some television shows, although they have never really been too interested in video games. They are also very creative and fairly skilled at finding productive ways to occupy themselves, and I’ve been proud that throughout their childhoods I have rarely heard them complain about being bored.

So I’m trying to put my professional knowledge and my personal experience together to draw some reasonable conclusions. These are my thoughts…

Play is important. Children need lots of opportunity for free play in their lives, both at home and at school. I caution parents to stay away from preschool programs where they do lots of worksheets.

Some materials stimulate creative play more than others. Since I recently wrote on this topic, I won’t go in too much detail again here. I believe that some electronic toys can play a role in helping children develop some skills, but I don’t think they’re particularly useful in stimulating creative play. My kids always had access to some of these types of toys, but they were never their primary, most-used toys.

How parents play with their kids is important. As a therapist with years of play therapy experience, I have learned a lot about how to approach play with kids. It can be harder for some parents than others to master the art of letting the child lead in play, but I highly recommend it. Again, read my recent post on creative play for some ideas about how to do this.

Let them be sometimes.  Kids need opportunities to play without adult intervention. They may still require your supervision for safety and possibly peace-keeping reasons, but they do not always need your direct intervention in their play. I know when my kids played with each other or with their friends they created pretend scenarios that I would have never imagined.

Kids need down time. Children (and adults!) need time in their week for unstructured, relaxed activity. Sometimes, ironically, you may need to schedule it in to make sure that down time gets the prioritization it deserves.

Structured activities are important for young families. When your kids are younger, organized activities and group classes provide a great opportunity to get out of the house and socialize for kids ~ and also for their parents. When my children were in the toddler and preschool years, we generally went to an organized class once or twice a week. I enjoyed the structure and the routine in our schedule as well as the opportunity to meet other parents, and my kids also enjoyed the activities. These classes also gave my kids some experience with being part of a group and following directions from a teacher before they went to school.

Structured activities are important for older children. For older children, organized activities and lessons provide an opportunity to develop skills and explore interests, as well as to socialize with peers. My children have learned a tremendous amount and have experienced great joy and satisfaction by participating in sports, theater, music and dance programs that I would have never been able to replicate for them on my own.

Balance is key. Trusting yourself to figure it out for your own family is part of empowered parenting.

*”Awakening the Child Inside” by Amy Novotney,

“Play’s the Thing…” by Hilary Stout,

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