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The importance of unstructured time and play for children

Our occupational therapist, Emily Martin, is constantly emphasizing that “play is a child’s first occupation.” There are countless quotes about how important it is for children to play, learn, and imagine as much as possible.

However, in our busy society and ever-growing need to balance a bunch of things at once, kids are hurried from one thing to the next without a lot of time to simply play. There has been a recent push on behalf of pediatricians to prescribe play as an anecdote for stress and to encourage its presence in childhood. But why?

Why play is important

Although the golden days of drinking out of a hose outside during the summertime after dinner, while mom was inside vacuuming the living room while smoking a cigarette with John Chancellor on NBC, playtime is just as important for children in 2019 as it was in the 1970s. Unstructured time for children has decreased tenfold over the years, due to a greater emphasis on learning, and increased reliance on screens, to name a few. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) lists nine specified reasons that playtime may have decreased over the years, most notably the increase of screens.

The decrease in free play can also be explained by children being passively entertained through television or computer/video games. In sharp contrast to the health benefits of active, creative play and the known developmental benefits of an appropriate level of organized activities, there is ample evidence that this passive entertainment is not protective and, in fact, has some harmful effects.

The reason that play is so important requires a hefty description. Since we can’t say it better ourselves, check out this explanation that covers the benefits of play from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) highly stresses the importance of play in children. While kiddos really need the learning that they are doing in school, they just as badly need unstructured time for physical activity. It’s tough for a kid to sit in a chair for several hours at a time, and play time is a great contrast to that.

Playtime is important for children because it provides the opportunity for problem-solving skills, communication skills, conflict management skills, helps them make sense of their environment, and so much more.

In addition, the AAP recognizes that children who are hurried from one task to the next without a break, time for self-reflection, gathering their thoughts oftentimes are statistically more anxious and prone to depression. None of those things sound fun. Since children are not getting the opportunity to play, problem-solve, and self-reflect, the subsequent result of a hurried lifestyle void of play is difficulty with self-awareness and self-soothing. Those side-effects of a hurried child are what lead to the correlated societal trend of increased depression and anxiety after adolescence.

What is the best way to play?

If you subscribe to any parenting magazines, you may or may not have noticed that there’s a huge debate about how kids play. The debate consists of the following question: Should we prize ingenuity and problem solving over safety when it comes to the play constructs we have for children?

To illustrate the question, think about a playground that has been recently built. Everything is made out of thick hollow plastic, the ground is probably squishy, and there’s swings, slides, a climbing activity center, and the likes. Now, picture a different scene that’s more like a workshop with wood, nails, a hammer, et cetera. Both are feasibly environments that children can play on. One of them facilitates a more safe, energetic environment, and the other is a self-instigated work environment that’s a bit more potentially risky.

Risky play

It may be a good idea to come to terms with the notion that kids aren’t made of glass. One of the best things a kid can learn from playtime, as mentioned by the AAP, is problem-solving skills. Kids can attain better problem-solving skills through what early childhood researchers and specialists refer to as “risky play.”

Risky play, that is, “can be defined as a thrilling and exciting activity that involves a risk of physical injury, and play that provides opportunities for challenge, testing limits, exploring boundaries and learning about injury risk,” according to Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, a professor of early childhood education in Norway.

Allowing children to have unstructured time in environments that encourage originality and creativity is great for their self-esteem, task completing, creativity, self-trust, risk-benefit analysis, to name a few. There are a seemingly infinite number of invaluable skills kids can gain if they are allowed to explore, create, and invent during an unstructured playtime.

Giving kids the time to explore their skills, abilities, and interests in a “risky play” manner allows them to fully control the situation can improve self-awareness, confidence, task completion, problem-solving skills, and many others.

Risky play and safety

We’re not saying you should let your children run wild. Of course, kids need supervision to ensure their safety and wellbeing. But instead of playing with them and helping them problem-solve to complete tasks, it may be a better endeavor to allow them to figure out how to make—and learn from—their mistakes.

According to a blog by Backwoods Mama,

Risky play is not about exposing children to situations that can result in serious harm or danger! Parents, grandparents, and educators need to teach children how to be aware of risks and how to manage these risks appropriately to avoid serious injury. This can be done by helping children to develop awareness of their physical surroundings, to think critically about their actions and to problem solve when they do encounter challenges.

You don’t have to put your kids in harm’s way to help them develop problem solving skills. Allowing them to play by themselves is great. Just try to not hover.

While there is a lot of debate about risky play, the abilities of your child and your personal preferences ultimately determine if you want to engage with it or not. That said, allowing your child the independence they need to grow and develop as an individual is essential in their mental wellness development, as illustrated by research.

Play activity ideas for kiddos of all ages

Age appropriate play ideas mean something different for children of different ages and abilities. While some of these ideas involve playing alongside your child, they do not exclusively require you to play with them.

Birth-3 months

Babies are highly stimulated by visuals. Play with colorful blocks, black and white books, and the likes.

3-6 months

Use brightly colored objects, blocks, and other toys to encourage fine motor skills.

7-12 months

By this age, kiddos are still distracted to bright colors. This is the stage where sensory toys, tactile objects, and stims are great to use. Use toys to encourage fine motor skills, executive functioning, and task planning.

1-2 years

Kiddos around this age love pretend play. Giving them the opportunity to play dress-up by themselves, get a make-believe kitchen, building forts… it’s all great for children of 1-2 years.

2-3 years

During this time, it’s great to help kids with fine motor skills to help them with pre-writing abilities. Give them a pen and paper and let them draw and color.

Playing outside games like basketball, baseball, and the likes can help them with motor planning and executive functioning. This is also a great time to introduce risky play in a simple way. Just start easy with a little bit of play wrestling or rough-housing if you feel comfortable enough.

3-4 years

Introducing a little bit more risky play at this age may be a great idea for many children. Let them play in the backyard or an outside park with some sticks, insects, rocks, and whatever else. Give kids the space to play by themselves without being hovered over. Monitor them to ensure their safety.

4-5 years

Gradually introduce a bit more risky play into their daily lives. Let them run, roll, or bike down a hill at high speeds (Don’t worry! They’ll be okay!). Even if your kiddo is in a wheelchair, you can join them in pushing them down a hill. Honestly, the high speed is something that they’ll probably love since it’s unexpected and challenging to their proprioceptive system.  If your kid hates that, that’s fine! Try pushing them on a swing a little bit more vigorously than normal.

Take them to a trampoline park. No matter the ability of the kiddo, trampolines are pretty fun for just about everyone. If your child has physical disabilities or special needs, it can be a great idea to call ahead and ensure that your family gets the accommodations necessary. You can bounce your kiddo in a wheelchair on a trampoline. Don’t believe us? Just watch this viral video.

5-8 years

Trust your kid with a hammer and nails. You can work together with them to build something. You can buy relatively inexpensive building kits from just about any home improvement store. Giving a child the opportunity to work with their hands and trust themselves with tools can give them an increase in confidence when the task is over. Just allow their imagination to run wild and help them engage their mind and hands in a simple construction task.

This is also a great time to introduce forts. Playing with pillows and blankets inside the house is a great construction task that encourages imagination and creativity.

8-12 years

Build a fire together. If you don’t know how to start a bonfire and roast marshmallows, this is a great time to learn! The good old University of YouTube has a plethora of how-to videos. Giving any kiddo the chance to learn and build a bonfire is pretty fun for everyone since it teaches them the responsibility necessary to enjoy a well-roasted marshmallow on a fire they helped you build.

Going forward

Please understand that, while all these ideas may work for some, they might not work for all. Take everything in this article with a grain of salt. You know your child and their abilities best. But please, turn off the screens and let them just play!

Research used:

https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182#ref-37

https://www2.ed.gov/nclb/overview/intro/execsumm.pdf

https://www.healthychildren.org/english/ages-stages/toddler/fitness/pages/caution-children-at-play.aspx

https://www.parents.com/fun/sports/exercise/the-importance-of-play/

https://www.citylab.com/design/2012/03/politics-playgrounds-history/1480/

https://www.naturalchild.org/articles/research/ages_stages.html

https://www.parents.com/baby/development/intellectual/age-appropriate-play/

https://www.backwoodsmama.com/2018/03/outdoor-risky-play-is-good-for-kids.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/07/04/why-some-risky-play-is-necessary-for-kids/?utm_term=.23ac3c901e5d

https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/science/19tierney.html?_r=0

https://wehavekids.com/parenting/The-Importance-of-Risky-Play-in-Early-Childhood

https://www.backwoodsmama.com/2018/03/outdoor-risky-play-is-good-for-kids.html

https://qz.com/1363294/the-american-academy-of-pediatrics-is-telling-doctors-to-start-prescribing-play/


How to raise an adult with special needs

There is a lot of information about school-aged individuals with special needs. From IEPs to fun toys and adaptive equipment, there’s plenty of readily available support. However, things can be tougher once your kiddo is not so little anymore.

Encourage independence when they’re young

Yes, we talk about how crucial independence is all the time. But in all seriousness, allowing your child to make mistakes under your supervision while they’re younger can encourage self-soothing, problem-solving skills, and independence. Allowing your child to harness their personal and practical life skills encourages them to grow as an individual.

The fact of the matter is that you will not always be there for them, and that doesn’t have to be a bad or scary thing. It’s important to be a warrior for your child, but it might be just as important to allow them to experience success and failure for themselves.

Understanding that there are aspects of your child’s life that are out of your control is an imperative step to beginning to transition your special needs kiddo into adulthood and make the experience a little bit easier for them.

Look at options for programs where your child can go to interact with other kids.  There are day programs, respite, camps, etc.  A respite program will do wonders, not just for building independence for the child, but for the family as well.  While most families are concerned that their child may not do well or be upset or scared, in most cases, it is the parents who are scared… not the child.  The staff at these facilities are trained to work with all individuals with special needs and have plans in place to work with all behaviors. This is their job so let them do what to do best.

Here’s a secret: most children with developmental and physical disabilities are much the same or normal developing kids and the fact is, they do not always want to hang out with their parents.  It’s not cool! They strive or desire as much independence as possible to allow them as much freedom as possible while keeping in mind issues which prevent them from achieving this but give them as much as is safe.

Plan ahead

Whether we like it or not, the unfortunate side effect of living is aging. Unfortunately, the entire plot of Peter Pan is not a reality, and your kiddo is going to grow up. This can be especially difficult for individuals with special needs. Thinking ahead to their adulthood can be a great tactic to alleviating stress and subsequent confusion that comes with parenting an adult with special needs.

It is recommended at age 17, before they become a legal adult at 18, to seek out legal guardianship if this is needed. The process can take some time to complete and you want to have everything in place and scheduled with the courts prior to their 18th birthday

Before your child turns 18 and therefore becomes a legal adult, be sure to consider seeking legal guardianship. If your child is intellectually and/or physically disabled to the point where they require your care, it may be a good idea to seek guardianship of them when they are over the age of 18. According to Parenting New Hampshire’s blog, “To obtain guardianship, the parent or other third person must file a petition with the probate court in the county where the child resides.”

Do your homework

When your child is about to age out of the school system, consider having a conversation with professionals. Whether it’s your occupational therapist, special education teacher, or even pediatrician, where they think that the best place for your child would be after graduation. Depending on your state and school district the age of graduation can be 18 or 21. And in most cases, the amount of available resources for adults is far less than for children creating a bottleneck of available resources for families.

If you are looking at a day program for your child, you should plan to start researching and applying for the wait list at least two years in advance and apply at several different locations.

If looking at work opportunities through an agency or workshop, speak with the school’s transition facilitator on upcoming transition workshops they may have available or agencies that offer such programs.  All of these can make the transition from high school to an adult program.

Of course, take all the information that is given to you with an objective eye and a grain of salt. Professionals in the special needs field in your community will probably provide the greatest insights and connections, and if they have been working with your kiddo for a long time, you may have similar insights as to what may be best for your child.

That being said, you know your child best. It’s best to take the guidance of professionals and your own personal experience with your kiddo into account when decision making.

There is no such things as too much information when it comes to making a decision, so being well educated and informed on the matters of your child’s life after school can be a great way to help them transition into adulthood. Find day programs or jobs that will be fulfilling for your loved one.

Learn to transition yourself

One of the things that some parents forget is that their children will not always be young. It’s tough to stop time, and as of right now it’s impossible. Your kiddo will grow older. Learning how they can be more independent and self-sufficient can make you feel unneeded. Sometimes, when your kiddo grows up, you have to transition yourself into a new phase of life. Take up gardening, do some yoga, learn how to make sushi!

This will much harder for the family then it will be on the child.  Families that have dedicated their lives to their child sometimes find they have to give up certain things or interests for the greater good.  When you find you have more time available, it will take a bit of adjustment.

It takes time

Transitioning a special needs adult into “adulting” is much easier said than done. Just remember to be patient and acknowledge that these things take time.

Always remember that you as the parent or caregiver will always be the strongest advocate for your child, so always be advocating for them.  Just like the proverb ‘squeaky wheel gets the oil”, you will need to advocate and push to get what is needed.   Not because people do not care but because everyone is busy.

Any of these transitions will require a fair amount of planning and meetings to ensure a proper transition. You will need to follow up with everyone to make sure meetings are scheduled, documents have been sent, contracts have been signed and scripts/doctor’s notes have been submitted. This includes coordinating with your support coordinator for the state, any therapists, the agencies you are pursuing just to start.  Everyone is working towards the same goal for your child which is to make sure they are happy, prosperous and independent in life.

Article content contributions from Scott Kouri.


Therapy swings, explained

When you really think about the world of a child, swings are everywhere. From playgrounds to clinics, classrooms and even our website, swings are everywhere.

Not only are they fun for any kiddo, but they’re also hailed as a standard of therapy for children of just about every ability. But… why is something so simple so effective for just about anybody?

Well, before we get into swings, let’s talk about movement in general. Just about everyone moves some way or somehow. Whether it’s walking, running, jumping, being pushed in a mobility device, standing, sitting rocking, or whatever, you’ve probably moved before.

The vestibular system

Congratulations, having moved, or been moved, before, you’ve experienced vestibular motion. Vestibular motion refers to movement that stimulates the vestibular system. The vestibular system refers to the neuroscientific sensory system that is responsible for the following:

  • Motion
  • Head position
  • Spatial orientation
    • Proprioception

The vestibular system is primarily located in the inner ear. When you were a kid, did you ever play the game where you spin in circles so much that you fall over with your eyes still moving back and forth? That’s a pretty extreme example, but that’s a very clear illustration of the vestibular system. The inner ear movement tells the brain where you are, what to feel, and how to react to movement.

Why a child might need vestibular stimulation

Just about every kid loves to swing. If you’ve ever been to the park with a toddler, they often want to sit in your lap as you swing with them or want to be pushed higher and higher on the baby swings on the swing set.

Why do they love that? What’s more, why do they need vestibular input?

Well, to answer the first question, the reason that kids usually like vestibular input, especially swinging, is because it’s genuinely fun, releases dopamine (which is a feel-good hormone), and helps them make sense of their environment.

Individuals with special needs oftentimes have difficulty with sensory processing. Individuals with sensory processing difficulties can be particularly benefitted from extra sensory input. Swings are a great, fun, and easy way to engage in sensory input and provide the vestibular system. Swinging, rocking, spinning… all those things can help with vestibular input.

What can swings do for you?

Swings are great for sensory input since they engage a multitude of senses. A kiddo can hop on a swing and get proprioceptive feedback, visual stimulus as the world moves around them, and get tactile input from the physical swing itself.

Since swings engage the mind and the body, they are great for calming, since they engage the entire vestibular system.

Not only that, but they are also a great way to break up the monotony of a school day. From sitting on the bus to sitting in a classroom, kids do a lot of sitting. Swing can encourage them to literally shake their sillies out in a healthy manner, increasing a rush of blood to the head. Getting a kiddo’s heart rate up in a fun, safe, and therapeutic environment can help expel some of their pent-up energy from sitting all day. Getting rid of that energy can help them better focus and pay attention in class.

Swings are, in and of themselves, a really cool way of administering ninja therapy. Just climbing into and using a sitting in a swing (before you even move in it), encourages hand-eye coordination and physical activity. Moving back and forth in the swing encourages motor control, executive functioning, and task planning. Getting the swing to move can engage the individual’s core muscles, improving their overall strength.

Things to keep in mind

Some kids have more unique needs than others. When choosing a swing, make sure that the fabric is soft and unobtrusive. When you’re thinking about how the swing will mount, consider the motion. Is it linear, meaning it sways between front and back motion, or centripetal, meaning it goes in a circle? Individuals who have difficulty with motion sickness might be better served by a linear moving swing, rather than a centripetal one since there’s less chance of them feeling motion sick from the movement.

Therapist recommendations for swings

  1. Therapy net swing

We’re gonna come out and say it: this swing really isn’t that fancy. But you know what it is? Cheap. Effective. Fun. If you’re buying it for a kiddo that has good balance and coordination, this one might be better for

  1. Special Needs High Backed Swing with Rope

This is a great swing for individuals who need a little extra support and positioning.

  1. Cacoon Single Hanging Tent

Just as cool as it looks, the Cacoon is a swing and a hanging tent.

  1. Gym 1 Bonobo Indoor Swing Package

Hang it from the doorframe. Boom, instant fun.

  1. Nest Swing

Curl up and pretend you’re a bird with this fun swing.

  1. Trapeze Bar with Handles

You too can be on The Greatest Showman.

  1. Square Carpeted Platform Swing

A favorite at clinics, great for kiddos of just about any ability.

  1. Edge Series Clinical Platform Swing

Another clinic favorite!

  1. Currambera Hammock Swing

A hammock and a swing? Yes please.

  1. Monster Web Swing

Okay, the name is so cool.