Child development experts say free-form playing is every bit as important to a child's growth as any structured activity.
"Playing is critical to children any time of the year," says Joelle Garnick, child life/recreation therapy manager at Temple University Children's Medical Centre. "Play is important because it's a child's way of learning and developing."
Child psychiatrist Dr Elizabeth Berger says one of the main problems confronting parents is confusion about exactly what constitutes real play.
"Something like baseball or soccer is fun and considered playful, but that requires skill and very controlled activity," Berger says. "But real playing is about discovery and being creative with self-generated activity."
In fact, play uses many of the same intellectual skills children will need as adults with careers, she says.
"Someone has said, 'Play is the work of childhood.' For a child, creativity and intellect are the same thing," Berger says. "The world presents its perplexities to a child, and it's through play that a child masters those perplexities."
Garnick adds that an essential aspect of playing is the independence it offers kids.
"When we give children the ability to interact with other kids on an even level and explore the environment on their own, versus 'here's the environment, you will explore it,' it supports their development. Kids need to play," Garnick says.
Play also lets children release emotions in a safe way. It gives them the chance to express feelings or emotions, such as pent-up energy or anxiety, while giving them pleasure. When children play, they're in control. Playtime is free of rules and gives an unlimited number of choices, says Garnick.
Throughout childhood, play takes many shapes and forms. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget described the stages of play as including:
- sensorimotor play, in which infants and toddlers experiment with bodily sensations and motor movements;
- symbolic play, in which objects take on a different meaning - wrapping paper becoming a dress, for example;
- mastery, in which children are in control of their bodies but still possess imagination - becoming a rocket when swinging on a swing, for example;
- and finally, games, with their rules and order.
Garnick says there's a place for parental structure in play, but only peripherally.
"I like to equate it to a ball in a racquetball court - if you throw the ball, it will go everywhere, but it's not going to get lost because it's in an enclosed space," Garnick says.
"Play without structure is more like having a ball thrown in the middle of a playground without any direction or purpose. So I believe it's important for structuring," she adds.