Rules Vs. Freedom: Exploring the Play Paradigm

Seemingly the easiest part of any child’s life is that which includes play.  It’s a natural, built in method of exploration, learning and, sometimes, even exercise.  Kids live to play – outdoors, in groups, even by themselves.  Sometimes, though, children’s ability to play freely can be hampered by their parents’ desire to control the way their children spend their time.  A child’s mind is like a sponge, so it is said, a fact which fuels a desire to ensure that a child’s time is spent optimizing the use of that sponge through purposeful, useful kinds of play. 

In the world of play, there are two different styles: structured and unstructured.  In structured play, there is usually a central goal, a time frame and a set of limitations on what is meant to happen.  Most of the time, the structured nature of the play can be educationally driven, meant to teach some kind of skill or lesson; however, sometimes it can just be a directed way of spending free time. For structured play examples, think organized sports, chess, or a puzzle.  Unstructured play, on the other hand, is more free form, meant to allow a child to use his or her imagination to create the fun.  As opposed to playing with a specific direction, unstructured play inspires a more creative and independent atmosphere for a child to engage in learning.  Examples of unstructured play could include playing dress-up and pretend, drawing, or building blocks – the point being that there are no limitations but that within the child’s own mind.


As you might imagine, with two such different styles of play, there is a fair amount of controversy over which style is best and which yields the most positive results.  On the one hand, directed play helps a child shape specific types of information and learning.  With an intentional goal set out before the play begins, a person can learn rules, structure, taking turns, teamwork and discipline while also enjoying the activity in which they are participating.  On the other hand, free play helps a child feel comfortable and even confident in generating ideas from his or her own brain, expressing his or herself, and creating fun, sometimes, out of thin air.  Both have their merits, but which side wins out?

There is a lot of discussion that insists that parents put too much emphasis on structured activities to keep their kids busy.  Once school is out, kids are shuttled from soccer practice, to dance lessons, to piano, to language classes, keeping their free time calendar booked up.  The argument for the packed schedule, for some, is that busy kids are also smart and active kids who stay out of trouble.  For these parents, too much idle, unfocused time can leave kids vulnerable to distraction and trouble.  With structured activities, they are exposed to lots of activities to explore their interests while also building a wide skill set that may enhance their brain development and comprehension of academic skills.  In the end, though, naysayers of the structured play idea think that all of this constant activity can exhaust a child and, ultimately, stress their systems beyond what is reasonable and fair.  They say that kids need more time to explore what interests them by themselves and should be left to their own devices more often to be able to figure that out.  Kids should be able to express themselves freely, as childhood and adolescence is the time for individuals to really start learning about who they are and what makes them happy.  With all the pressures of school, children should have the ability to relax, decompress and spend their free time doing more expressive, creative activities that provide a lower stress environment.  Too many structured activities with too many rules and boundaries can stifle the creative facilities of any single person, especially a young person who maybe hasn’t quite learned the best ways to cope with that kind of stress.

So what’s the answer?  It seems a happy middle ground is the key – everything in moderation.  Kids should have time to themselves to relax and find ways to express themselves.  Creativity is not only an important, but a powerful tool that should be encouraged, crafted and honed.  It’s the kind of abstract skill that makes a person stand out in a crowd of students, applicants or employees, later down the road.  However, there is a lot to be said for the confidence that can be built playing team sports or learning one of the arts.  Creativity is great, but if there is discipline, drive and structure to go with it, you have an unstoppable force.  There is no balance without both Yin and Yang, and the same goes with children.  Kids need structure and boundaries to help them understand how to operate in the worlds of school, work and society.  At the same time, this knowledge of rules and boundaries needs to be countered with an equal amount of creative outlet and exploration so that new ways of doing things can be discovered.  So, let the kids play, whatever that means – just don’t forget to allow them variety and choices in their play. 

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