Balancing After-School Activities with Free Time

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Parents consider many factors when selecting after-school activities for children, including managing the logistics and finding activities suited to each child’s interests and developmental level. From individual and team sports to classes in areas such as art, music or cooking, there are many options for all ages. While these activities expose children to new experiences and support their social, emotional and cognitive development, it is equally important to incorporate free time into a child’s daily routine.

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

What is open-ended free play?

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 music class, open-ended play requires children to develop and carry out their 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 is it a house, school or castle?

Open-ended play generally follows the child’s lead and interests. 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. It also develops and refines their flexibility and skills negotiating, compromising and sharing in relationships with others. Independent play helps children develop an internal dialogue and ability to focus, which help with independently reading, writing and persisting through challenging academic tasks. Children who become independent players and collaborative playmates often carry these skills into their school and learning habits.

Playing 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 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. 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 after-school 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 provide 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.

The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families.

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