Does Unstructured Free Time Make You Anxious?

Are you taking Tylenol or reaching for a Xanax because your kids are driving you nuts when they have unstructured playtime? Does it make you want to sign them up for summer programs, just to get them out of your house?

The younger your children are, the more you have to supervise their play. Don’t expect a four year old to play alone for more than 10-15 minutes. It is not going to happen. And if your child does play alone for even 15 minutes, he or she still need to be supervised so he or she doesn’t get hurt. That is called being the parent. It is hard, but the years will go quickly and when they are older, you will be sad they don’t need you as much.

Here is a book you might read about this subject- unstructured play and what it does for your child’s brain. Seriously, this book is the best, and the audiobook is free!:

What kind of things can a child play if they are not good at playing make believe alone? Some kids need something kinesthetic to stimulate their mind (something to touch and manipulate with their hands.) Although a little screen time (ipad, Xbox, TV, whatever) is fun, no child under 10 should spend extended time staring at a screen. They want it, they crave it, because it is addictive! But it is a one way process of stimulation. It is not as interactive as a conversation or handling a toy.

Here are a couple of games a child can play by themselves that can make them curious and stay engaged:

For children over 7:

For younger children, shape sorting, matching games, lacing cards, and colorful non-toxic clay help them organize and classify things.¬† Using their hands to improve their fine motor skills, their eyes to tell the difference between different colors and shapes, and their brains to decide what to do with these things helps them grow and develop their thinking. Good old blocks and Legos are popular for a reason. There is more than one way to use them! Making a tower that doesn’t fall over after trying and failing is teaching persistence as well as balance. Here is a good set for little hands:

So give your child something to create or problem solve. Then sit back, have a glass or wine, and read this blog, or one of the others for moms of bright kids. You are doing a great job, Mom. Then sit on the floor and help your child build a fort. You will find some unstructured play is therapeutic for yourself, too!

Play games that teach your child’s brain to solve problems.

You cannot start playing too soon with your children. When you play “peekaboo” with an infant, you are doing it to see their surprised expression and smile when it sees your face again. But what is going on in your child’s brain when you play peekaboo? The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” is totally true with a baby. If it can’t see your face, you might as well have left the building. The baby’s brain is trying to make sense of the napkin or towel you put over your face. The baby wonders, “What is that?” “Where did Mommy go?” “Is this thing going to feed me now?” It is less scary if they hear your voice, saying, “Where is Mommy?” or “Where’s Daddy?” while you are hiding, but it is still really surprising to a baby when it can see the face it recognizes again.

It will only be a few months until your baby will start repeating your actions and playing peekaboo back with you. Ita brains learned how to do something that makes you smile. The arms and muscles learned how to hold a napkin and put it over its eyes. Its brain grew the connections to be able to do that. The child’s brain learned how to solve the problem of not being able to see you by moving the thing that covered its eyes.

Copying what you do is a primary teaching tool that parents have with them all the time. That is why you have to watch your language and watch the TV shows you think they are not watching (but subconsciously, they are). You also need to monitor your attitude in the way you interact with children. Sarcasm and impatience are both responses that children can learn from you, but so is patience and empathy. Think about it. What are you teaching your child’s brain to do?

Here is a really good baby toy that helps your toddler repeat a 2D image in three dimensions. It isn’t always easy to find, but it is worth it if you get it.

The older your child gets, the different kids of games they can play to improve their memory, their math skills, their eye hand coordination, and their ability to make decisions and follow directions. Unlike the others, making decisions is a prefrontal cortex thing. It has to be developed and organized for children to understand consequences, and learn how to make decisions. Chess is that kind of game. Here is a couple of chess games for different ages:

5-8 year olds

Older kids can pick from many different theme chess games, like this Star Wars set:

Playing games helps your child’s brain organize itself so that it can problem solve, plan, and make decisions. Why is that important? Because brain science proves that if the prefrontal cortex is not well developed to plan and problem-solve, it is unlikely to be able to understand consequences or be able to predict.¬†Reuven Feuerstein believed that intelligence could be modified. Google that name, or you can read about his work in cognitive psychology here:

He would tell you I am right. Play games. Change your child’s brain.