"Free time" is a tricky thing. When you don't have any, you might feel like you're going a little insane. When you have nothing but free time, you may feel the same. But what about when it comes to our children? Is free time a beneficial thing for their developing minds, or should it be kept to a minimum? I consulted several experts to find out just how free time affects your child's brain, and it turns out, it does have a pretty big effect.
Katie Davis, a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins, believes that free time is a critical component of childhood. "Free time allows children to participate in activities that have no clear structure or rules, and so it is crucial for social, emotional, and cognitive development. During free time, children use parts of the brain that are required for imagination, introspection, and daydreaming. They develop important social skills, like communication, flexibility, cooperation, negotiation, and taking turns. They try out new activities and roles, which fosters creativity. They also learn to manage conflict, which helps to reduce anxiety and stress," says Davis in an interview with Romper.
We all know those parents — or maybe you are that parent — that utilize every spare moment of their child's day. Piano lessons, sports practices, foreign language courses, whatever — idle time seems to be the enemy. Why waste precious time that a child could be learning something new or developing a skill? While these learning opportunities are certainly valuable, unstructured, totally free time might actually teach skills and behaviors in its own way.
In an article by the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder, researchers describe how free play and structured play affect executive functions — crucial skills that help children make decisions, solve problems, and complete goals. These researchers stated, "The more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning." In other words: children with free time, who engaged in unstructured play, became more self-directed because they had the chance to.
In an ultra-competitive world where college acceptance rates seem to get lower and lower every year, it makes sense that parents want children to use their time "productively," learning concrete, resume-building skills. "Many parents are desperate to do the right thing for their children — we shuttle them back and forth from school, to football, to an after-school club, and then get them home and sit and ensure they do their homework,” said Dr. Sam Wass, a Cambridge University-based child psychology expert, in an interview with The Telegraph. However, it's crucial that parents also recognize the real merits of free time — even if it may not look as important from the outside looking in.
"There is a huge amount of research that suggests that this child-led, unstructured free play is vital for stimulating imagination and creativity, as well as helping the child to become more self-sufficient,” said Dr. Wass to The Telegraph.
So, should we ditch all structured activities and embrace raising fully free-range children? Not so fast. "Structured activities are also important for fostering cognitive and academic development .... Students benefit when they have access to books, educational games, team sports, art classes, etc., because they develop important skills that support learning and development. So, I think it's important to find the right balance. Like everything else, moderation is best. But kids need both structured and unstructured time, both with and without other children, in order to develop the full range of crucial cognitive and socioemotional capacities," Davis tells Romper.
You already know how to give your children struture, but if you're unsure how to incorporate free time, Dr. Wass has recommendations. First, let your child discover their interests, and then follow them. Let them play and explore, and support their interests without forcing them. Second, don't be discouraged if they claim to be bored. Using their imagination may take some practice. Third, embrace sharing screen time. Some of my best memories as a child are playing computer games on my dad's lap, or watching a funny movie with my mom. Finally, teach them to play. Sure, this might feel like you're adding structure to their unstructured play, but eventually they'll be entertaining themselves with ease.
Cognitive benefits aside, making room for free time has another massive benefit: creating happy children. Donna Bozzo, parenting expert and author of Fidget Busters: 50 Ways to Keep Kids Busy While You Get Things Done, tells Romper, "Children are often stressed and tired from complicated schedules as parents try to jam in lessons, playdates, anything to give them an advantage .... Not only is all this stress bad for kids, stressed out parents make children over-anxious. Free time is good for a child because it helps them create their own joy."
Moral of the story? Just as you prioritize extracurriculars, lessons, and practices, embrace blank schedules and free afternoons. Though ditching constant structure may be uncomfortable at first, it'll help create happy, self-sufficient, motivated children.