I was fortunate to have parents who saw value in unstructured play. I was encouraged to spend my free time as, a worm surgeon, astronaut or potion maker. I had my father’s entrepreneurial spirit so, my unstructured playtime brewed many business ventures. For example, I was determined to invent weed killer when I was seven years old. I transformed into a scientist mixing concoctions of aftershave, perfume, toothpaste and other random bathroom supplies in old ice cream buckets. I fermented the mixtures under my bed and waited patiently for my weed poison to develop. I poured buckets of mixtures over unsuspecting weeds in the garden only to discover them growing stronger week after week. Failure? Heck no, I had invented plant food! When bathroom supplies ran low, I painted rocks from that same garden to look like ladybugs and sold them to my neighbors as paperweights. I eventually decided to expand from sole proprietorship to partnership with my friend across the street. Due to limited customers, we needed to switch up products and services often. Paperweights turned to lemonade and car washes in the summer months. During down times, we stayed busy negotiating business roles and rules. If I was bossy, then I was met with a kick in the shins or another swift reminder that playing successfully with others required relationship not dictatorship. I learned quickly that planning and creating was powerful when it was a shared process.
Reflecting back on that year, I recognize my unstructured playtime facilitated resiliency through skill building, relationships and a sense of community. I hypothesized, tested and persevered. I imagined, created and shared. I learned that failure ultimately leads to success and that success is sweeter when it’s shared with others. As a parent and clinician, I am not aware of a single structured activity for children providing lessons so powerful. Although many structured activities do indeed hold value, unstructured play facilitates endless opportunities for children to exercise relationships, ideas and choices. For many children, homework and multiple structured activities leave little time for unstructured play. As parents, we are bombarded with “optimal choices” for our children's time. In a society where structured activities are marketed with promises of providing children with an edge, I think it is important to pause and consider what we might be edging out.
Laura MacRae-Serpa, MFTI, CCLS has special interests in supporting children and families navigating adoption and the challenges of chronic illness.