Make Way for Free Play

Play is essential for people of all ages and stages. It's our motto. It's our mission.

This is the first of many blog posts from the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative. Yes, play is so important that there is a dedicated group focused on promoting play across the entire Pittsburgh region. 

Our goals are to increase access to play, raise awareness about the importance of play and inspire the community to take action in play. Our mission is especially important as a new school year begins for kids in the Pittsburgh region.

“Educators fret that school officials are hacking away at recess to make room for an increasingly crammed curriculum. Psychologists complain that overscheduled kids have no time left for the real business of childhood: idle, creative, unstructured free play. Public health officials link insufficient playtime to a rise in childhood obesity. Parents bemoan the fact that kids don’t play the way they themselves did – or think they did. And everyone seems to worry that without the chance to play stickball or hopscotch out on the street, to play with dolls on the kitchen floor or climb trees in the woods, today’s children are missing out on something essential,” wrote Robin Marantz Henig in Taking Play Seriously, 2008.

Through play, children learn and develop as individuals. Play teaches kids social skills such as sharing, taking turns, self-discipline and tolerance of others. It assists in their emotional and intellectual development. When kids (and adults!) play, multiple lobes of the brain activate and neural synapses form. The brain documents the play experiences and stores them for future situations.

Fred Rogers, one of the most well-known play advocates, said it best, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

In general, there are two types of play: unstructured and structured. 

Unstructured Play:

  • Directed by child
  • Spontaneous, self-motivated play

Structured Play:

  • Organized by adult
  • Occurs at a specific time and place

So how do you know if your child is getting the right amount of play? According to Dr. Michael Patte, recent research suggests that children should experience twice as much unstructured time as structured play experiences.

“It’s all about balance,” said Cara Ciminillo, Executive Director of Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC).

For example, if your child is in school or child care all day, allow your child to experience unstructured, child-led free play when you get home.

“And listen to your kids. They know,” said Ciminillo.

If your kids complain about going to sport practices and music lessons after school, it could be a sign they need more time for free play.

As society limits opportunities for unstructured play, it’s important for you to be a play advocate for your child. Give your kids ample time for free play at home, check to see if there is enough recess at your schools and child cares, and make sure your kids see that you play, too.

Please check back with the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative blog each month for more helpful tips and information about play.