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Child’s play: The value of structured and unstructured activities

3 Nov 2013 – 05:18 PM EST

Before I had kids, I didn’t give much thought to child’s play, so I’m sure I didn’t know its value back then. But my two 5-year-olds have taught me a lot about the importance of child’s play—both structured and unstructured—as I watch them learn, navigate, and make sense of the world, one Lego and railroad track at a time.

The nice thing about having twins is you can say, “Go play.” But playing with them allows me to encourage them to try new things, choose activities that are educational as well as fun, and observe the things they naturally gravitate toward. Plus, it’s just fun for me to get to act like a kid, too.

One of our favorite things to do together is create music—or in this case “music” since they’re probably sounds only a parent could love. But even in the midst of our joyful noise, I see some natural talent emerging, and it makes me think maybe we should start music classes. They also love to build things, which is good for their fine motor skills and spatial reasoning. I’m not sure what knocking the structures down teaches them, but they seem to enjoy it almost as much! Maybe I’ve got future architects on my hands—or my own demolition crew. Either way, I’m happy to supply tons of building blocks to keep their hands and imaginations busy.

And I try to find time for them to just let loose and run wild every day. They love it, and the bonus for me is they might actually be tired at bedtime. The playground at the park is truly their happy place. Seeing my sons run around like little mad men always makes me laugh. Plus, even this unstructured play has its educational value. It’s interesting to watch the social interactions. Whether it’s taking turns on the slide or negotiating peace when little skirmishes break out over the swings, those interactions are healthy for them. I’ll admit it’s hard to not jump in immediately to mediate, but I’ve noticed that since they’ve gotten a little older, if I hang back, the kids usually find a way to work it out. So the park ends up not only being good exercise for their bodies, but a good way for them to stretch their character as well.

What are the go-to structured and unstructured activities that you and your kids love most? What are they getting out of it that’s much more than “child’s play”?