The Grand Adventure Let your grandchild PLAY

August 17, 2018

Back in the olden days, we kids had plenty of what people today call “unstructured” or “child-led” play. This was time when we weren’t playing an organized game of baseball or basketball. It was when the boys weren’t going to Little League practice, and the girls weren’t going to piano, dance or baton-twirling lessons.

It was time we had to entertain ourselves without adult leadership — like Scouts or board games or TinkerToys or Lincoln Logs that came with instructions.

On our block of post-World War II homes, there were two vacant lots. One was cluttered with caliche rocks, cacti, occasional mushrooms and mesquite trees and populated by horned toads, lizards and an occasional snake. The other vacant lot — our favorite — was between the homes of two of our playmates. In the middle of this lot, along with all the flora and fauna West Texas could generate, was a large stack of bricks. It was 15-20 bricks wide, about 30-40 bricks high and probably 30 feet long. “The brick stack” as we called it, was a meeting place for all the elementary-age kids in the neighborhood. I make that distinction because as our older friends aged into junior high, they suddenly were too old to play in the vacant lot any more.

It was here that we could become anything we wanted to re-enact. Whatever we could imagine, we could transform the brick stack into that scene: high-rise buildings in New York City, Persian palaces, a bandit’s hideout — whatever we came up with, we could pretend it on the brick stack.

What brought this somewhat unusual playground of my past to mind was a recent study I came across a study that found the importance of unstructured play for kids “…because it gives them a sense of freedom and control. It also allows them to learn about themselves, what they like and don’t like, and even make mistakes without feeling any pressure or failure,” according to the online newsletter, Very Well.

As the study reported, “Many experts believe unstructured play is a necessary part of childhood. It is recommended by the Society of Health and Physical Educators (Shape America) that preschoolers engage in some form of unstructured play for at least an hour each day. Several hours is even better.”

PLEASE NOTE: Child-led or unstructured play is not unsupervised play. Be involved with toddlers and pre-schoolers until they’re ready for you to only observe. They’ll let you know.

So how do kids learn how to create unstructured play?

Be sure to have plenty of materials on hand — age-appropriate toys, a big enough space, and plenty of time. A park or playscape would work for a spacescape. Save plastic milk jugs to make space helmets. Cut eye, nose and mouth spaces on the side opposite the handle. Spray them silver and encourage kids to pretend they are on the moon. Show them how to walk in slow motion. Suggest they look for moon rocks on this mission and let them take it from there. You might also fashion an alien’s helmet or two. We rarely took anything from home to the brick stack because we pretended to have them.

You can also use items to encourage a preschooler to engage in unstructured play, using a variety of items:

Hula hoops: While most preschoolers aren’t physically able to hula hoop properly, they certainly can have fun with one.

Juggling scarves: Again, they probably won’t use the scarves as intended, but a little one will come up with plenty of creative uses.

Cardboard boxes, paper towel rolls, sidewalk chalk, blocks, water bucket and sponge, sticks and rocks, or buttons (beware of choking hazards).

Leave these and similar items out for your child and you will be amazed at the creativity your little one engages in.

Unstructured play is just one of the many activities for preschoolers. It lets your little grand darlings explore their imagination and the things around them.

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