Children & Boredom: Unstructured Playtime Concerns and What to Do About It Part 1

One of the areas that is often overlooked when it comes to kids being bored in the summer is unstructured play time. There does seem to be a lot of pressure for parents to keep children from getting bored in the summer but as a counselor, I highly recommend parents giving their children ample time for unstructured play in the summer. Plus, this gives you a break from trying to come up with creative activities to entertain your crew (and we all know that it’s almost impossible to find activities that will please everyone!).


Research indicates that children today are getting significantly less unstructured play time compared to previous generations. If you’ve ever scrolled through any social media, you know that there are parents that have wonderful, and creative activities for entertaining their children. Inevitably, looking through these posts can cause us to compare ourselves to how other parents parent, and that can be discouraging because it can make us feel like we’re not doing enough. If you’re that parent, this post is going to help you take a breath and encourage you to give your child more unstructured play time rather than schedule and plan more activities!


Let’s look at some of the concerns that research is showing with children and playtime. 


Decline in playtime

Studies show a marked decrease in children’s free play over the past few decades. This includes play time both inside and outside. Even though the fighting and arguing is often difficult for parents/adults to tolerate, these situations provide ample opportunities for children to practice good communication skills.


Structured activities increase

Time spent in organized activities and screen time has risen. This usually comes at the expense of unstructured play. While being part of sports or academic teams is also good for children, it gives them less opportunity to learn assertive communication and negotiation skills that happen during unstructured play with peers.


Academic pressure

Emphasis on early academic achievement has led to reduced playtime, even in preschools. Schools are under pressure to compete for ratings and even funding based on test scores. One of the first activities to be shortened during the day is unstructured play time. Parents are not always aware of the learning opportunities unstructured play provides for children and especially when they’re paying for a private school, they have high expectations about what their children will be taught and don’t necessarily see the benefit of their children using school hours to have unstructured play.


Outdoor play reduction

Children spend less time playing outdoors unsupervised than in previous generations. This is a trend that has been happening from the early 1980’s so it certainly not new. But it has had an impact on how much time children are allowed to be outside and being unsupervised because parents are concerned for their children’s safety. It is important and encouraged for families to find a balance between giving children time to explore outside with healthy boundaries in place.


Socioeconomic factors

Similar to safety concerns, some children do not have access to safe play spaces and impacts how much they are able to be outside unsupervised.


Health implications

We know the rates of obesity has increased and there is a correlation with how playtime. There is also a correlation with an increase in mental health issues, especially anxiety.


Increase in anxiety

As counselors, we’ve seen a drastic increase in children experiencing anxiety, from very early ages. The research is indicating that there is a link to how much unstructured play time they’re getting with other children. The use of electronic devices has also been linked to this increase in anxiety.


As you can see, there are a lot of negative things happening because of children not having enough play time in the home, outside and even at school. The research supports that unstructured play is a vital component of childhood development that is often overlooked in today’s highly scheduled world. Unlike organized activities or educational games, unstructured play allows children to explore, create, and learn at their own pace without adult direction. Playing with other children offers numerous benefits for a child’s development.


Hopefully this will encourage you to give your child some more freedom to have unstructured play time this summer, knowing the benefits it offers to your child’s mental and physical well-being. Be sure to check out Part 2 found here for what to do to help children and boredom, especially why unstructured play time helps them with their emotional and mental health development.

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