Leaving Children To Their Own Devices

Written by: Director of Early Learning, Cathy Bonnaventure, B. Ed., M. Sc., R. Psych.


As an Early Learning Director parents often ask me what they can do to prepare their child for school.  It causes me to wonder what experiences are important for young children.  Of course, literacy is the first thing that comes to my mind.  Read, read, and read to your children! However, I also hear Kindergarten teachers say that more and more children are coming to school without necessary social skills, independence, or physical skills.  Why is this the case and what can be done about it?

Like Michael Patte, professor of education at Bloomsburg University (see article below), I also remember having a lot of free time as a child in the 1960’s.   My most vivid play memories are those which occurred outside.  I played with other children who lived on or near the same street after school, after supper and on weekends even after dark. We were in charge of deciding what wanted to do.  When we ran into trouble, we had both the scare and thrill of figuring it out. We walked or rode our bikes everywhere. I don’t remember being closely supervised by my parents, but knew where to find them if I needed them.  We knew how far away from the house we could go. Never go to Fish Creek Park in Calgary!  Do you think we ever did that? 

According to research conducted by Michael Patte, there has been a reduction over the years in the amount of time that children spend in unstructured play. When I compare my childhood experiences to my daughter’s,  I am inclined to agree. I have memories of her in the backseat of the car and me stressing about getting her to soccer, dance, piano, horseback riding, etc. on time.  Did I get it really wrong as a parent? Having said that, I also remember relaxed, fun times when we spent hours in mud looking for worms after it rained.  Hmmm. 

Michael Patte says that children are spending too much time in structured play and it’s having an impact on their growth.  He defines unstructured play is as activities that children dream up on their own. This type of play allows them to make up their own rules, experiment with their own behavioral, emotional and physical limits, and gain competency on their own terms.  He says this kind of play is not adult-led and fosters “self-determination, self-esteem, and ability to regulate themselves”.

Most interesting to me is that he says children need time to experience boredom, unplanned, or unscheduled time so they can decide how to use it in order to “create their own happiness, enhance their creativity or inventiveness, and develop self-reliance”.  When I think about what I learned from playing when younger, I would say I learned how to be autonomous, cooperative, resourceful, and even responsible. Not to mention how physically fit I was!  See Patte’s article below for a host of other benefits of unstructured play.

So why are children experiencing less unstructured play now compared to when I was young? There may be many reasons, but I can certainly understand as a parent the concern for a child’s physical safety. Another reason is an obvious one, which is the increased availability and use of technology.  

Patte’s research suggests that children should experience “twice as much unstructured time as structured play experiences”.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that making sure your child has an abundance of outdoor, unstructured play experiences before he or she starts school is important.  Indeed, it may also be a key ingredient for helping students succeed throughout their school career.


The following are a few excellent sources of information for parents about unstructured play, the importance of children connecting with nature, and the benefits of outdoor play: