Play is often structured in games, sports, video games, and classes that teach something like karate or painting. But there are great advantages to unstructured play which is left to the imagination of the child. Without specific rules or an adult present.kids are left to use their own creativity to create narratives about whatever is on their minds. This may take the form of climbing a tree, building a fort out of couch pillows, or playing with superhero figures in a story. What ever form it takes, the child is the creator.
Critical thinking includes flexibility, empathy, understanding the impact you have on others, tolerance of frustration, anticipation of different outcomes, and problem solving. Children who play together or alone with their dolls, figures or blocks invent stories that often have conflict between the characters that needs to be solved.
This requires initiative on the part of the child to design their play into narratives that often tell a story that reveals what the child is thinking about. One child may turn the blocks into a house because they are concerned about something in their home. By arranging the blocks the child with another companion they make decisions about the shape and size of the home and what toy figures are doing in the rooms. They are constantly creating and solving problems for the figures to solve with different outcomes. They are challenged by the need to understand how the actions of the figures affect one another. They may be quite flexible about trying their pal’s way or strongly oppose something happening other than their own ideas. Either way they are engaging in problem solving.
Structured play led by an adult doesn’t offer the same kinds of opportunities to develop critical thinking because the rules are designed in athletics, for example, that cannot change. Of course this teaches team spirit, cognitive and motor skills, and sportsmanship, but if it’s the only kind of play kids engage in it is limited.
The parent’s role is to provide the time for kids to have unstructured play all throughout the year. If the kids schedules are filled with organized activities, they don’t get the same chance to initiate play on their own, work out real problems, imagine others, and solve them creatively. Unstructured play results in discovery and exploration that adult led activities often leave out.
Expensive or elaborate toys aren’t needed for unstructured play. Toddlers think pots and pans that they turn into drums are very exciting. Elementary school kids take up whatever figures are at hand. Dolls, superheroes, Lego people, various vehicles are all useful and put to the child’s purpose. Anything the child doesn’t have, he or she can make out of clay or a drawing to complete their play which may radically change midstream as new ideas are considered. This kind of unstructured play continuously provides challenges and obstacles to overcome in a flexible way. These are critical thinkers.
The skills they learn on their own are then applied to real life problems that occur daily. The children barely know how effective their learning has become as they play alone or engage with playmates, both of which are important.
It’s important for kids to be able to spend a few hours alone inventing their play just as it’s important to be able to communicate with other buddies who are engaged with them. Time needs to be set aside for both avenues of play. The parent’s job is primarily not to interfere or redirect the play into something they imagine is more important. This is the child’s invention, not the adults.
So all that the parent needs to do is to step back, resist hovering over their child, leave plenty of time in the day for the kids to plan their own activities.
It’s more about what the parents should not do—instruct their kids—than what they have to do. Being laid back allows your child to imagine their own worlds based on their own inner minds of feelings and thoughts.