There are five main benefits of kid-friendly unstructured play:
1) Play gives kids a chance to develop their own interests. In school, children work for grades and praise from the adult teacher. In organized sporting events, they work for trophies and more praise from adult coaches. With free play, they focus on their own interests. They get to do what they want to do.
2) Children learn how to make decisions and solve problems during play. Think about a simple game of tag at recess (without adult intervention, of course). Children have to work together to determine the rules, explain the rules, decide where to play and how to include multiple people. If the play is kid-driven, the kids are in control!
3) Play helps kids make friends. It teaches them how to get along with each other.
4) Children learn how to handle their emotions during play. Again, children will likely put themselves in challenging situations (both physical and mental) during free play. If we let them figure things out, they will learn how to control those emotions.
5) Play makes kids happy. Everyday I ask my daughter what she did at school. Her response is always the same. I played. Again, think about your favorite memories as a child. Most of them likely involve playing with friends, without adult intervention.
What can we do to bring more free play to our children's lives? You might have to start small. Try not to hover on the playground. Think about replacing a structured activity with something less organized. Does your four year old really need to play on a soccer team or can you replace the time spent at soccer with kid friendly free play? Send your kids outside to play. Be an advocate for recess at school.