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Parents, there’s an upside to a less-structured school year

If you’re worried that your children will be harmed by disruption to their school and recreational activities this fall, two professors from the College of DuPage in Illinois want you to know that it won’t all be negative.

Psychology professors Azure Thill and Ada Wainwright are reassuring parents that a break in strict routine allows children an opportunity to engage in unstructured play and gives adolescents more time to self-reflect.

“There is so much focus in the news on how stay-at-home orders are impairing child development and parents need an uplift,” Thill said in a college release. “We need to look at the next school year from a different lens. One thing that we know based on decades of research is that unstructured play has a multitude of cognitive and social advantages.”

Children’s unscheduled playtime has been declining steadily over the past half-century, research has found. In addition, findings from a research study from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado offers support for a relationship between the time children spend in less-structured activities and the development of self-directed executive functions.

Children may still mourn the loss of routines and activities they enjoy, and parents should support and allow those feelings. But Thill and Wainwright suggest they also see the opportunity to be found in less structured time.

“Parents tend to think that an abundance of activities will give their children an advantage as they move through their educational career,” Thill said in the release. “Undoubtedly, there will be less direct learning and less large group socialization during the next school year. Instead of making parents feel like they need to worry and find ways to compensate, we need to help them understand what an important and unique opportunity this is.”

In her work preparing future teachers for their roles, Thill stresses how important play is. She wants to see it added to school curriculums and to normal family routines.

“I hope we see the return of small group unstructured play in the suburban neighborhoods,” she said. “Sometimes parents feel the need to function like a cruise director, laying out a list of pre-planned activities every morning. They need to be reminded that playing in the back yard is beneficial for kids too.”

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