We’ve recently come back from four glorious days of camping. I always feel good about camping as a family. I enjoy watching the kids run around on the grass with bare feet, playing in the dirt with toy cars, exploring creeks and cooking damper over an open fire with sticks. It’s all good stuff. I often think about how much they learn while they play and explore.
Over the years of parenting, I’ve become more relaxed about all the things that come with raising adventurous, creative kids. We live in a society often focused on cotton-wooling, rather than holding up the importance play for children. There’s a lot of pressure on parents too, and it can be challenging to wade through all the noise to find your own confidence based on what you feel is important for your kids. I believe children need the freedom to play, and explore and learn! I’ve come to recognise that the best kind of real play is kid-led. It’s the kind of play that is largely unstructured and full of imagination.
Expert clinical psychologist Dr Suzy Green shared the reason why opportunity for real unstructured play is so important for children.
“Free, outdoor, unstructured play is crucial for normal, social, emotional and psychological development in children. It helps develop critical life skills such as independence, confidence, resilience and personal responsibility, as well as developing a sense of judgment in order to take measured risks. Real play helps children to understand the value of making mistakes in order to learn, and experiencing these lessons first hand through discovery and experience.”
That brings me to the recent Dirt is Good campaign from Omo which looks into the important benefits of unstructured real play for kids. This is a topic close to my heart, because over the years of parenting, I’ve had to change my mindset when it comes to allowing the kids the freedom to explore and get messy along the way. It’s important to recognise the benefits of real play and bring back the magic of allowing kids to play freely. You can read more about the heart of this campaign here: Why dirt is good.
The real play experiment video reflects the quandary I feel sometimes. I want to provide lots of unhindered play opportunities for my children, as I know how important it is for development. However, there are times when I don’t know how to achieve it without stressing too much about the aftermath. I’m happy to say that I’m much more cruisy (most of the time) now. Below I’ve broken down the things we do as a family to ensure plenty of kid-led play that isn’t surrounded by mounds of cotton-wool (unless it’s for a fun craft maybe)!
Changing the way I think, has helped the most. A group of Australian bloggers use the term ‘Play Matters’ on Instagram, and this is the mindset I’ve adopted. Because I believe play matters, it helps me foster and allow plenty of unstructured play for my children. That’s really the heart of it for me.
Keep it Simple (and kid-led)
Kids are wonderfully resourceful, and even if I’m time poor, I’ve found that providing simple prompts is an easy way to get them engaged in the backyard. Below are two simple ideas:
- Fill a plastic tub with sand (kids can add toys or water). More details here.
- Make a mud kitchen by simply collecting second hand pots and pans, finding a spot in the backyard and allowing kids to have hours of fun “baking”. For more detailed instructions, click here.
- Take a ball to a park
- Bring plastic figurine animals to the beach
- Place a row of plastic ice-cream containers in the backyard and make different mixtures with dirt, flowers, leaves, twigs.
- Lay down a sheet or towel on the ground for a pretend picnic with toys.
- Draw with chalk on concrete
- Take toy cars out and about
- Make leaf boats and float them down the stream.
In my experience, the best-best-best way to encourage unstructured play for kids is to go to wide-open spaces in the outdoors. There are wonderful playgrounds available in Australia; however I love to give my children the opportunity to make their own play too, without stereotypical play equipment. We love playing in the sand at the beach, exploring creeks and lakes, having fun on walking tracks, playing on rocks, climbing trees, running on big fields of grass and doing bushwalks. The good thing about going to these spaces is it’s a fun way to enjoy family time together, and children’s play follows naturally.
Incorporating real play naturally as we live life has brought a lot of joy to our family life. It can get messy sometimes, but I remind myself that one day I’ll miss this stage when my children are learning and growing through play.