What’s Better? Supervised Play or Unsupervised Play

Did you know that the amount of time that today’s children spend playing is far less than the amount of time we spent at play? How can that be with so many overwhelmed mothers who spend their time running children from one event to the next?

Siblings Wrestling in the Grass When They Thought No One Was Looking

Meanwhile, in our schools there is a decline in recesses. And at home there is an increase in screen time. Altogether, this means there is an overall decline in unsupervised play.
From time to time my husband Chuck and I reminisce about our childhood experiences and find ourselves comparing them to those of our grandchildren. The one that we feel is the most different is playing outdoors unsupervised.
Neither of us would trade our experiences with our grandchildren’s. Not only do we see less children playing outdoors, but we also see that those who do are almost always involved in some sort of competitive, adult-supervised play.
T-Ball

We feel that outdoor play is important to the development of children, but we also think that unsupervised play is equally important.
I learned in October while at the Type-A Parents Blogging Conference that we are not alone in our beliefs. Researchers say that free play significantly improves kids’ problem-solving skills. Play is also one of the best ways to stimulate children’s brain development. Active kids are more likely to be active adults.
Girls Playing

But is free play the same as unsupervised play.
Chuck likes to talk about the traditional pick up game and how he feels it helped him develop into an independent adult. I wrote an earlier blog which described his experience. You can find it here.
I on the other hand like to tell about mine and my sister Pam’s imaginary world of playing house, using a stick to draw our homes in the dirt road driveway leading down to our home. They didn’t pave the driveway until I was much older.
Also, many of us in the neighborhood liked to play down in the woods behind our houses. We built forts and dammed the stream back there. Those were wonderful days, and there wasn’t an adult in sight for hours at a time.

Teenagers hanging out.

At the Conference I found in the expo a kiosk about a movement called, “The Genius of Play”. This is a national movement whose mission is to give families the information and inspiration to make Play an important part of every child’s day. You can read about it here.
Their research says that play is more than fun and games; that it is essential for child development. Their mission is to “give families the information and inspiration needed to make play an important part of every child’s life.” It provides advice, play tips, and ideas based on a kid’s age and developmental stages.
Since the conference, I found other groups with the same purpose, such as PortlandFamily.org and www.Care.Com.
The Genius of Play and the other groups feel that there are six key benefits of play that are crucial to healthy child development. I’ve taken the liberty to regurgitate what they said, melding it all together below.

Key Benefits of Play

1. Play Improves Cognitive Abilities – There are studies that show a correlation between outdoor play and a reduction in ADHD symptoms. Outdoor play requires children to use their brains in unique ways. Also, it helps them to incorporate concepts learned in the classroom.
They may have learned about the parts of an insect in school, but in the outdoors they can study an insect up close, by themselves, and experience it in a hands-on way where they can see it and touch it, bringing to life the lesson they learned at their school. My daughters used to bring me rolly pollys and would also let the little green lizards bite their earlobes and wear them as earrings until they let go. Scientists tell us that outdoor play also decreases anxiety.
Exploring New Ground

2. Play Hones Communication Skills – Unstructured play helps with honing our communication skills. Not everyone can be chosen first nor can everyone take a turn on the slide first. Kids who participate in unstructured play with each other learn these communication and behavioral skills on the playground.
They also learn to modify and enforce their own rules. Chuck and I both were involved in unstructured, unsupervised play. His story about the pick-up game you heard about earlier. Mine, though, was in a big field across the road from my home. It was surrounded with houses, as we lived at the edge of a small town. Kids from the houses met in that field and played football, baseball, or whatever was in season. As a girl, I loved football best. I think it had something to do with getting tackled by the boys.
3. Play Increases Creativity – Outdoor play helps children use all their senses, such as insects to see, rustling leaves to hear, fresh mown grass to smell, rabbit weed to taste, and acorns to touch and throw. TV only gives them hearing and seeing, and it can seriously affect their perceptual abilities.
For example, biking develops self-confidence and satisfies one’s exploratory interest, and playing outdoors provides opportunities for imaginative play. Children invent things like Pam and I used to do with the imaginary houses we created. And it was dirt that presented limitless opportunities to invent our world as we pleased.
Building Creativity

4. Play Increases the Ability to Process and Express Emotions – Remember how excited we all got when someone made a touchdown or someone jumped across a wide ditch. Well, this is how we learned to process and express our emotions. We were challenged by the other kids; and that was a good thing, because we learned how to cope.
5. Play Develops Physical Skills – Did you know that children who play outdoors have better distance vision? A study by Optometry and Vision Science found this to be true. Also, outside play is relaxing and destressing for children.
Research shows that third graders who get 15 plus minutes of recess a day are better behaved in school. Playing outdoors also helps kids develop muscle strength and coordination. For example, the simple act of swinging requires a child to engage all their muscles to hold on, balance, and coordinate their body to move back and forth. Skating requires balance, too.
Climbing Trees

6. Play Enhances Social Skills – Outdoor play requires kids to learn to get along with each other. Unchaperoned play requires it, too. It also helps kids gain self-confidence. Children invent rules and negotiate their way through play. This increases their creativity, intelligence, and negotiation skills—all social skills that we need to function in society.
But I would like to add a seventh benefit.
7. Play in the Outdoors Develops Good Health – Lots of children suffer from vitamin D deficiencies according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. This vitamin is important to future bone and heart health, but too much sun is a problem as well. My mother and I both made our kids come indoors during the hours of 10-2 p.m. Florida gets quite hot during the middle of the day anyway. But children need to play outdoors without sunscreen for some part of the day, and I don’t remember using sunscreen as a child at all unless we were swimming or out all day on the beach. I can remember playing outdoors without my shirt until I got to be about 6 or 7 years old. I believe outdoor play for children is vital to their good health.
So grandmothers, encourage your children to read this. They need to understand that unstructured play is as important as school and adult-supervised sports.
Nothing like a sprinkler on a hot summer’s day.

Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychologist noted for her work on bi-polar disorder, says it best, “Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.”

Leave a Reply

  1. You have a lot of good information here. Some of it was new to me, so I enjoyed reading what you had to say. I’ve written a few posts which also touch on this subject. In one of them I have a link to an article about a “junk playground” that encourages unsupervised play. I hope for our grandchildren’s sake that they reverse the trend to minimize, or do away with, recess, and also over-scheduling children. It’s not good for anyone.

  2. Very well said Cindy. I agree 100%. Children need to be outside playing learning about themselves and all the nature around them. Alowed to grow and develop their skills and own personalities. It’s so nice to live in a small town where the children still play outside… I truly enjoy seeing them.

    • I miss the sounds of children playing outside. My neighborhood is full of people my age, all empty nesters. There were quite a few kids on this street, though, when our girls were young.