Imagine that you have a new hobby and you are loving it so much. You sit down to figure out a new aspect of the hobby through trial and error. But then your partner, parent, or friend walks in and tells you that you need to stop doing that and do something they deem more important right now.
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How would you feel? Frustrated? Angry? Resentful?
This is the same way children feel when we interrupt their play when they are focused and playing.
It doesn’t matter if it looks repetitive or silly from your perspective.
If we allow children to have uninterrupted play in early childhood they grow to be more self-sufficient kids because they develop better focus, problem-solving, social-emotional skills and so much more.
What is uninterrupted play exactly?
Uninterrupted play is allowing children to play without redirection or interruption as long as the play is age-appropriate and safe.
During uninterrupted play, other children can be involved as long as adults do not interfere when they are working out differences and ideas.
Children should be the ones making the choices in what is being played, what is being used in the play, and how the play is directed.
Why is uninterrupted play important in early childhood development?
Because play is the work of childhood, uninterrupted childhood play is vital. Children need play to work through feelings, ideas, and even things they are learning.
During uninterrupted play, children are learning how to focus on an idea or task for long periods of time.
When children are given unstructured and uninterrupted play they can choose to explore ideas through trial and error. This gives the child more self-confidence and makes them better problem solvers.
Uninterrupted play with other children means that kids are working through learning how to cooperate with each other and how to work through disagreements.
What does play do for children?
Did you know that play in childhood is protected by the United Nations?
Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly states “all children have the right to play and rest.”
Play is that important.
Childhood development depends on age-appropriate free play. Children need the opportunity to play, unrushed, unguided, and free of external interruption whether that is solo independent play or play with a group of children.
During play, children develop fine and gross motor skills, executive functioning skills, emotional regulation, and so much more.
Play helps children to become self-reliant while learning about the world around them and coming up with creative solutions to problems.
Play should be the major focus of early childhood education.
What role does unstructured & uninterrupted play, play in raising a self-sufficient child?
Having unstructured and uninterrupted play as a cornerstone of your child’s early childhood experience can help them to grow into a self-sufficient child by giving them time to practice focus, patience, problem-solving, self-regulation, and self-initiation.
Unstructured Play Helps Children Practice Focus
Do you know that most adults have an average attention span of 20 minutes? But the modern world is constantly pulling our attention from one thing to the next. Focus is becoming more and more of a rarity.
One way to help your children practice building their focus before it’s required of them through school and other activities is uninterrupted play.
When a child is playing uninterrupted they are focusing deeply on a thing and teaching their brain to stay with an individual task until it is completed.
When we interrupted the play with something as innocuous as “Good job” or turn it into a teaching moment your child’s focus is broken.
When you are tempted to praise or teach, let it pass and allow your child to continue to focus.
Uninterrupted play helps children develop Self-Reliance
Your child is working hard stacking blocks in a specific pattern that only they know. You see them searching through the blocks looking for the exact block they have pictured in their own mind.
The natural response is for us to help our children. “Hey, buddy what are you looking for? Can I help?” But our children do not always need our help and when our help is constantly offered then kids stop trying to help themselves.
If we take a step back and hold off offering our help unless our child really needs it then we can help them to see that they are capable of doing hard things on their own without mom and dad fixing it for them.
Creative Problem Solving is a natural benefit of uninterrupted play.
Children whose parents allow them to play uninterrupted are inherently building their child’s problem-solving skills.
Kids will work through their own problems whether playing together with friends or playing on their own if adults do not intervene.
There are a few times that you should intervene in your child’s play:
- The play is not age-appropriate
- The play is dangerous
- Children are becoming angry and moving towards physical aggression with each other
- Someone is crying
Other than these times, let children try to work through their own difficulties and see what solutions they come up with. Interrupting their process can tell them that they cannot trust themselves to make good choices.
Self-regulation is a natural benefit of uninterrupted play.
Let’s go back to the example of you doing a new hobby. It can be a very frustrating experience.
Yet we can persevere and get through it because we have self-regulation skills.
Self-regulation is bringing yourself back to calm when your emotions get really big. Many times as parents we have to help our children regulate their feelings but during uninterrupted play, your child gets to practice regulating their own feelings.
Uninterrupted play is like a flow state for kids, so when their feelings start moving towards frustration they generally will look for another way to achieve the same goal.
This might be the hardest part for parents to stay hands-off though. As their frustration builds they may be vocal about their frustrations and push the toys away or stomp.
Try to see if they can bring their own feelings back down to start playing again before jumping in to help them regulate.
Uninterrupted play can help your child become a self starter.
Being able to self-start on problems is not only helpful in school but also in the workplace later on in life.
When your child gets to play uninterrupted they learn how to self-initiate play. They are not waiting for an adult to tell them what to play or how to play.
The ability to self-initiate cuts way down on your child saying how bored they are, because they know how to start play without direction.
This is a skill learned over time as they grow in their abilities to play independently, so at first, you may have to offer suggestions and tell them what they could start playing.
But over time they will be able to come up with their own ideas and be able to self-initiate play without your involvement.
How are long stretches of uninterrupted playtime beneficial?
Long stretches of uninterrupted playtime are not only beneficial to your child’s early education through creative thinking, deeper understanding of subjects, and building executive functioning skills, but it also helps parents by giving parents a break.
Kids develop creative thinking with uninterrupted playtime.
People tend to think that children are born with this innate ability to be creative. And in a way that is true. But creativity can also be honed or squashed depending on the environment of children.
During this TedxTucson Talk, Dr. George Land discussed a longitudinal study by NASA that showed that 98% of children at age 5 could come up with creative and innovative solutions for problems but by age 10 only 30% of those same children were still creative and innovative.
Tomorrow’s world is going to require our children to be creative and innovative beings and your child can grow in that by having uninterrupted playtime.
Because during uninterrupted playtime, a child is not told what the correct solution to a problem is but is given full reign on deciding how to solve any problem that comes their way. This makes them creative problem-solvers and that creativity can spill over into the rest of their lives.
Uninterrupted play helps kids to grasp a deeper understanding of the world.
The work of childhood is play and when children are playing uninterrupted by adults and unhurried they can use that play to grasp a deeper understanding of the world around them.
What you might see is your child filling a cup full of water and dumping it out over and over, but what your child is learning is the dynamics of water and gravity.
They see how water flows and what it looks like to pour it out at different heights to see if gravity will affect it differently. Maybe they are also starting to understand the idea of conservation.
All of a sudden that doesn’t sound like a child just pouring out water does it?
“Play is the highest form of research.” ~ Albert Einstein
And I cannot disagree with that idea at all. When children are playing they are often researching and experimenting with their world. Whether that be through physical manipulation or through experimenting with social roles and norms they see in society.
All types of uninterrupted play from imaginary games to simple motor activities help your child to understand the world that they are growing up in.
Maybe you recently showed them how magnets work and now they are sitting down with a scatter of toys running a magnet over them to see what happens.
Allowing children the opportunity to play uninterrupted, gives them the chance to form their own ideas, opinions, and observations.
Executive functioning skills help children to thrive in school.
Children learn some of the basics of executive functioning skills when they are allowed to play independently without adult guidance or interruption.
Executive functioning skills include:
- Sustained, Appropriate Focus
- Adaptable Thinking
- Working Memory
- Time Management
Children can develop these skills when they are playing independently.
Sustained focus is achieved by not interrupting the child and letting the child’s brain understand the reward of sustained focus.
Independent play helps children the most with adaptable thinking because the grownup isn’t there to tell them how to solve the problem. They have to come up with that on their own.
Children naturally learn organization and working memory
Uninterrupted playtime frees up parents to do necessary tasks and pursue hobbies and other interests.
Are you staying up two and three hours after your kids go to sleep to clean house and get a little semblance of me time in?
There is a better way. By helping your children learn to play uninterrupted for long periods of time during the day, you can get necessary tasks completed like paying bills or cleaning the house, but you can also get fun things done like pursuing a hobby or catching up on your favorite series.
I know the world says that you should be devoting all your time and energy to entertaining and educating your child, but honestly, that is not really feasible and leads to burnout for the default parent.
Your child is perfectly capable of entertaining themselves in a way that actually supports their mental and emotional development.
Now, this isn’t to say that we just let our children be free-range all day long and half forget they exist. But allowing them to play uninterrupted in their little imaginations and worlds is actually doing them a major favor.
The key is balance. Balancing uninterrupted time with quality time. Instead of spending your whole day keeping them entertained. You can spend some quality time baking cookies, playing games, or other things while they have time to play on their own as well.
Examples of unstructured play that help encourage uninterrupted, independent play
There are several ways you can encourage independent play in your children. I’m listing a few of the ways that many children will engage in independent play but this list could be endless.
The best way to discover your child’s favorite ways to play independently so they can have uninterrupted play is to have several open-ended toys and observe them.
You can also observe what they gravitate to in places with open-ended toys to see what you might add to your own playroom.
See what your child gravitates towards and what really pulls them to a focused, flow-like state of play.
Small World Play
Small world play is where children take things like peg dolls, small animals, and other small toys.
Children use these toys to build out small worlds like a small farm or zoo or even a small city.
Small world play is good for kids to work through everyday situations, think about the world around them, and be creative.
Giving children space and toys to do small world play can allow them to zone into their little world and play for long periods of uninterrupted time.
Remember when your child is playing not to ask questions or give directions.
Blocks and other building
This is one of my own kids’ favorite ways to get into uninterrupted play. Building with blocks, LEGO, or Duplo is a wonderful way for them to really dive into their play.
Playing with building toys not only helps children build the skills that uninterrupted play builds but also improves their spatial awareness, planning skills, and more.
For me, loose parts are the ultimate open-ended toy that encourages not only creative play but gives children the opportunity to dive into uninterrupted play.
Loose parts are often things we would think of that would go in the recycling box. Things like cardboard tubes, straws, pom poms, cotton balls, wrapping paper, sticks, flowers, leaves, and a host of other things.
Your child takes from the loose parts box to create an idea to play with.
Our loose parts box is always available and the kids are always adding to it and coming to get something to extend their play.
Like using the cardboard tubes to see if their cars will run through them so they can make a really cool track.