Thinking About After-School Activities

The latest "Understanding Kids" column
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There are many enriching after-school activities available to children of all ages in our community. 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 for play into their child’s daily routine.

Play, especially in the early years, is an important piece of development that is sometimes sacrificed to make room for more structured activities. Including opportunities for free play in your child’s daily routine will enrich his overall development and add to his 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 to 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 play, while sometimes guided by adults, generally follows the leads and interests of the children involved. This type of play can occur independently, developing a child’s ability to invest in her 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 opportunities 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 to their learning and school habits.

Free play with peers in open-ended ways provides children 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, while other times compromising and following another’s lead. Ideally, children should have regular opportunities for both independent and collaborative, open-ended play.


What Role Should Parents Play?

Of course, free play is not completely “free.” Parents play an important role in supervising and overseeing play, and helping children manage conflicts that become too big for them to manage independently. When parents or adults step in to mediate conflicts, they have an important opportunity to model the respectful sharing of different perspectives and the art of settling on a compromise. 

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, in fact, 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. Visit to learn more. 


Categories: Development, Enrichment