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Best Summer Activity for Kids? Unrestricted, Unstructured, Unadulterated Playtime

MU expert says summer playtime is important for kids' physical, emotional development

June 22, 2009

Story Contact:  Christian Basi, (573) 882-4430,

COLUMBIA, Mo. - It's summertime, summertime, sum-, sum-, summertime! For some kids, that means little league, play groups, swim lessons, camping, summer school, dance class and many other activities. But hold on a second! All of those structured activities may be doing more harm than good. A University of Missouri occupational therapist says that toddlers and elementary-aged kids need unstructured playtime during the summer, in part, to help with their emotional and physical development. In fact, a lack of unstructured playtime might be the reason today's young adults have trouble with problem-solving or critical thinking.

"Play is the vehicle for the development of many major life skills," said Lea Ann Lowery, a clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy in the MU School of Health Professions. "Children can work on simple, basic social skills such as taking turns, interacting with others and following directions and fine motor skills such as dressing, cooking and hand-eye coordination during play time. While some structured play is fine, overly structured play doesn't encourage critical thinking and problem-solving skills."

Lowery also said that playtime doesn't need to be expensive. Most children can develop their imagination skills with stuff around the house or old standby games that require no accessories. Empty boxes, plastic bins, cans and lids can become spaceships, drum sets or cages for plastic animals. Other activities include "I Spy," "Simon Says" or "Memory" that need nothing more than an outdoor setting or a deck of cards.

Anecdotally, Lowery is concerned about some trends related to how children are spending their free time. Some of those trends include children becoming reliant on certain objects - usually electronics - to have fun; lacking creativity in games or the inability to find other ways to play with toys; needing immediate gratification during activities; becoming too dependent on reinforcement; and becoming bored because they don't know how to occupy themselves.

"Even children with developmental delays can benefit from unstructured play," Lowery said. "Play isn't play if there are too many rules, and it's important to allow children to make messes. Parents also can make playtime out of work time. Preschoolers love to be helpful and can cut fruit with a plastic knife, can help mix ingredients for a cake or clear the table. Many age-appropriate, summer activities - both play and work - can help children develop specific skills."

Lowery said that becoming too focused on drills and practicing academic skills such as memorizing letters and numbers too early in development can cause some bad habits and frustration. According to Lowery, play is the foundation for many life skills and there is plenty of time to focus on academics.