Free Play: Why All Toys And Apps Shouldn’t Teach Your Kid To Code

The following was produced in partnership with our friends at Toca Boca as part of their Take A Stand For Play campaign, which aims to increase awareness about the importance of play in kids’ lives. Learn more here.

You probably don’t need to be reminded that your kid needs to play, but you might need a refresher on the fact that not all play is created equal. There’s free play, guided play, and a whole lot of stuff billed as play that just straight-up isn’t. To parse all of that, look no further than Jeffrey Trawick-Smith and Roberta Golinkoff — two of the most respected authorities on the topic of play. Trawick-Smith runs the Center For Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University, where he holds one of the few endowed chairmanships in the field. Golinkoff is Director of the University Of Delaware Infant Language Project and author of 12 books including A Mandate for Playful Learning In Preschool and Einstein Never Used Flashcards.

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You might say that, for Trawick-Smith and Golinkoff, play is serious business, because you play the dad pun game, and you play it damn well.

Free To Be You And Them

Why Free Play Is Important For Kids -- free play

By definition, play is voluntary, intrinsically motivated, and … what’s the word they used to teach in kindergarten? Oh, right, FUN. Trawick-Smith and Golinkoff agree that free play happens when children call the shots, carry out their own themes, and regulate their own behavior. Put another way, it’s “[Doing] the kinds of things that got us into trouble as kids,” Golinkoff says, with apologies to her upstairs neighbors back in Brooklyn for that time she scaled the roof of the building.

You’d assume kindergartens were designed to foster free play, and then you’d remember that you don’t live in Finland.

If you’re hesitant to turn your kid loose in the street, know that you can play too — and even introduce a goal besides “terrorize the neighborhood” — but only if you follow the kid’s lead. That’s guided play, and it has its place. “Adult interaction should be in support of self-guided activity. Free play is what’s most important; children having regulation over their lives, playing out their concerns.”

Bonding, Not Binding

Free play offers kids certain advantages that are especially pronounced as they enter school. “The ability of children to make their own decisions and regulate their own behavior while interacting with peers is really important,” says Trawick-Smith. “Play is also social and verbal, so those processes benefit, too.” As early as preschool, kids can form strong peer attachments through play, which help them begin to recognize the importance of collaboration. One study showed that children who engaged in elaborate block play over the course of a year demonstrated more advanced mathematical thinking at the end of it. Other research has shown a correlation in older kids between open world video games and improved hand-eye coordination. At every phase, free play helps kids learn about themselves and the world around them, which is definitely better than, you know, not.

Why Free Play Is Important For Kids -- free playToca Boca

Class Is In Session (Unfortunately)

With the benefits of free play so pronounced at the beginning of school, you’d assume kindergartens would be designed to foster that — and then you’d remember you don’t live in Finland. “I’d love to rescue kindergarten from being so academic and see more playful environments in elementary schools and after-school programs, not just places to quietly work at your desk,” says Trawick-Smith. “At age 5, that time is better spent playing with blocks.”

That decidedly un-playful vibe isn’t limited to kindergarten. Despite the known beneficial effects of play at every grade level, elementary education as a whole has taken a turn toward the academic — with proven negative repercussions. A 2011 study determined that lack of play has led to a 25-percent decrease in creativity at all grade levels, while a 2014 report implicates lack of play in an increase of anxiety in school-age kids.

So what’s a time-strapped family to do? Don’t make play complicated. “I don’t think it’s a hard sell,” Golinkoff insists. “Give kids blocks, puzzle games, and opportunity, and they’ll play them. It’ll just happen.” The key word there is “opportunity.” Rather than instructing kids every step of the way, give them the chance to make choices and figure out what they want. As Golinkoff says, “Sometimes kids need to be bored.” Admit it, you’d love to be bored right now, too.

Why Free Play Is Important For Kids -- free play

Screens Aren’t The Enemy

To paraphrase the ongoing findings of Trawick-Smith’s annual toy study, “Anything called ‘Educational’ usually isn’t.” He has, however, started to come around on screen-based toys. The types of play materials that lead to elaborate, social and verbal play tend to be open-ended, so tech toys that provide those and encourage kids to be creative instead of solve a single problem are okay by him. “Screens aren’t inherently bad, but parents and teachers should be thoughtful about the kind of play those apps and toys inspires,” he notes. Adds Golinkoff, “Not all apps have to be educational. They can just be fun! Play is about exploring your own world.”

Children who engaged in elaborate block play over the course of a year demonstrated more advanced mathematical thinking at the end of it.

But You Might Be

“If you’re in the car all day long driving between activities, you have a problem,” says Golinkoff. “But Junior loves tee-ball!” you reply. “And violin, and tap dancing, and ninja camp, and oh crap you’re right, kid’s totally overscheduled.” Trawick-Smith gets it. “It’s well-intentioned, we want to enrich kids’ lives in different ways, but sometimes [the activity] takes away from just being able to play,” he says.

That’s not just anecdotal — according to a 2009 study by the American Academy Of Pediatrics, kids have lost 12 hours of free time a week, which equates to 25-percent less play. There are also unintended consequences if your little extracurricular all-star has younger sibling. “If there’s a toddler in the back while the older kid is being shuttled to all those different activities, they don’t know any environment besides their car seat,” says Golinkoff.

Holy crap! You’re ruining the other kid, too? Fortunately, the solve here couldn’t be more simple: do less stuff. From now on, it’s a free play free for all.

Toca Boca’s Take A Stand For Play campaign aims to increase awareness about the importance of play in kids’ lives. Learn more here.

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