Provided by Lucy Daniel Center staff

Parents often consider a number of factors when selecting afterschool activities for their children, including managing the logistics of multiple schedules and finding activities that are well-suited to each child’s interests and developmental level. There is an abundance of choice for children of all ages, from individual and team sports to classes in subjects such as art, music, or cooking. While these activities expose children to new experiences and support their social, emotional, and cognitive development, it is equally important for parents to incorporate free-time in their child’s daily routine.

Play, especially in the early years, is an important piece of development that is sometimes pushed to the side to make room for more structured activities. Including opportunities for free-play in your child’s daily routine, however, may enrich their overall development and add to their growing abilities to tackle and solve problems, persist through challenging tasks, and negotiate and compromise, all of which are necessary components for social and academic progress in later years.

What is open-ended free play?

True open-ended materials allow for countless possibilities that originate in your child’s mind. Unlike structured activities with set rules and expectations such as board games, soccer practice, or art classes, open-ended play requires that your child develop and  carry out her own ideas. Open-ended toys include dolls, action figures, blocks, and everyday items that can be creatively used as symbolic representations of real-life objects. Think, for example, of the possibilities with a cardboard box. Does it become a family car, fire engine, or mail truck? Or, does it become a house, school, or castle? Open-ended play, while sometimes alongside or guided by adults, generally follows the lead and interests of the children involved. This type of play can occur independently, developing a child’s ability to sustain investment in his own entertainment, as well as in small groups, developing the entire group’s abilities to share, take turns, negotiate, and compromise on issues such as the direction of play themes and creative use of materials.

Why is play important?

Open-ended play provides children with opportunities to use their minds to imagine, create, and use objects symbolically, as well as develop and refine their flexibility and skills in negotiating, compromising, and sharing in relationships with others. Independent play helps children develop an internal dialogue and ability to focus, necessary components that will be helpful one day for independently reading, writing, and persisting through challenging academic tasks. Children who become independent players and collaborative playmates often carry these skills over into their school and learning habits.

Play with peers in open-ended ways provides children with opportunities to develop skills needed for all types of relationships, from close friendships to working as a group or team in school or extracurricular activities. When playing successfully with peers, children have to share ideas and listen to the ideas of others, sometimes convincing playmates to follow their lead and other times compromising and following the lead of others.

What role do parents play?

Of course, free-play is not completely “free.” Parents play an important role in supervising and overseeing the play, helping children manage conflicts that become too big to manage independently. For younger children, structuring the free play, without controlling it, helps them acquire skills that will eventually become their own. Joining your child in cooperative play with the dollhouse, or playing alongside the young fireman or princess in the cardboard box, are early steps in the healthy development of play.

As you consider afterschool activities for your child, keep in mind that open-ended play is an arena in which children develop and refine many of their strengths and interests. Taking time to notice developments in your child’s play could in fact provide you with clues about your child’s most genuine interests. Creating a balance between structured activities and free-time will enrich your child’s ability to participate fully in both types of activity.

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