- Crystal Watson is a certified recreation therapist (CTRS) and PhD candidate in the Dalhousie Faculty of Health currently employed as the Executive Director of Recreation Nova Scotia. She has worked in both community and clinical recreation settings and taught Therapeutic Recreation education in both community college and university programs. Her research focuses on outdoor play with children from African Nova Scotian communities.
For many adults, the pressure is on since children are out of school—and will be until at least May 1. The absence of a structured environment that includes bells signalling the next activity or timed eating and recess, is no longer part of a child’s day. Afterschool sport and recreation programs have stopped. The result is children are left with a lot of free time, unless adults are adamant about maintaining that structure of course. Perhaps, this is a good time to think about the pros and cons of over-structuring children and re-examining the importance of unstructured play and leisure time instead.
Peter Gray, a well-known advocate and researcher of play and author of Freedom to Learn says, “We have forgotten that children are designed by nature to learn through self-directed play and exploration, and so, more and more, we deprive them of freedom to learn, subjecting them instead to the tedious and painfully slow learning methods devised by those who run the schools.” In fact, he equates schools with prisons, calling them confining and liberty-restricting. While I am certainly one that values the role of schools for children, a unique opportunity has devastatingly arisen that provides children the opportunity to get back to basics and learn in a different, less adult-directed, way. And that is OK!
Unstructured play is vital for child development, and let’s not forget that play is a child’s right! Play itself happens in many forms and does not have to happen in groups. We need to take this time to encourage our kids to use their imagination to create and explore what they may have been learning at school in a different way. As a parent, I recall giving my daughter alphabet pages to trace and I question myself now because on her own she was making grocery lists or writing stories. On her own! Children have their own way of reproducing what is happening around them and we need to trust their ability to adapt and absorb information.
It is a great time to take the advice of leading researchers redirecting us to the importance of children’s play by focusing on increasing risky play and loose parts play. It is OK for us, as adults, to take this time and get out of children’s way and allow them to become acquainted with self-management and direction.
It is a great time for them to learn how to determine what is safe and what is not, how to cooperate with siblings, how to take turns and solve problems. Better still, learning to be independent, a skill most desired as some adults adjust to the new normal of working-from-home.
While I am advocating for parents to let their kids play, I am acutely aware that we are in State of Emergency and in fact our civil liberties are non-existent. And this means, that there are many Indigenous, Black and racialized children that will experience increased surveillance and risk with dealing with law enforcement. While all parents will need to discuss what a state of emergency means and how it impacts outdoor play specifically, this conversation becomes increasingly important for children from communities that are already disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system.
So, parents, I know you would like to see some semblance of normal for your children in terms of structure. However, as you embrace a new normal, for what we know will be an extended period of time, let your kids rediscover what was normal: leave them alone and let them play.