Adoptive mother: Balancing structure and free play

I’m happy to report that my son has been in kindergarten now for 2 weeks and there have been no reports of behavioral issues from his teacher as of yet. In fact, my son seems to be a model student. (Knock on wood – I don’t want to jinx it!) I’m pleased with how my son has adjusted to school these first few weeks. It’s been a really big adjustment for the little guy going from having a lot of unstructured play time each day to a very structured and regimented day with a strict teacher. As sad as I am that my child’s copious amounts of free time are now gone I’m suspecting that the structure his teacher is providing in the classroom is actually really good for my son. Our son’s therapist hit the nail on the head when she predicted: “the stricter the teacher the better it will be for him.”

Looking back at my son’s preschool years and at this past summer I remember how often I was struggling with my son’s behavioral issues. I’ve recognized a lot of his behavioral problems seem to stem around free play or when he is bored, in contrast, during circle time with teachers and in a more structured camp setting he had little or no behavioral problems at all. To say that these play-based situations are the crux of his behavioral problems would not be a fair statement since there may be underlying issues going on in the sections of my son’s brain which deal with the fight or flight response, however, I will say that in my son’s case I think having the amount of free play he had didn’t help his situation. I am in no way suggesting that play-based environments are bad or that I shouldn’t be giving my son time to choose his own activities – far from it. I just think that for certain kids, like mine, more structure might have been beneficial for him. In hindsight my son appears to actually NEED more structure in his days and for now at least is thriving.

Regardless of whether children thrive more with play or structure (there are compelling arguments all over the internet for both sides) I believe all children need exposure to both of these things. Through free play children learn to work a lot of things out themselves without the help of intervening teachers or adults. On the flip side, structure helps kids learn to follow rules and learn about consequences which is absolutely necessary in life when living in any society. Kids need practice in both areas. My son is so much better on a playground now at 5-years-old than he was at 4-years-old. I credit his improvement for two reasons: 1) because he is developmentally one year older, and 2) because I took him to so many parks and he interacted with so many other children over this last year. He got better playing with other kids through much practice. How can anyone possibly learn to adapt when altercations come up if they don’t have adequate practicing time on a playground? The same can be said when dealing with structure at home or in a classroom. It takes practice and discipline to learn to cope within a strict environment.

A troubling issue that I see at my son’s elementary school is the need for a better balance of free play and structured time. Our son’s school, like many other schools, currently weighs more heavily on structure. I find the lack of recess for kindergarteners at my son’s school disturbing with a total of just 15 minutes daily in a 6 hour period. 15 minutes! Upon discovering our children’s lack of recess time, another Mom and I decided that after school we were going to take our boys to the school park after class so our kids could vent out some energy. After arriving at the playground we looked on at our two active boys playing and were pleased with ourselves…until we saw our kids immediately start with rough play, tackling each other, pulling at each other’s arms, pushing and shoving each other, basically doing what typical boys like to do where they need a lot of intervention from adults before someone gets hurt. The other Mom and I were horrified at their behavior and soon we had a realization: perhaps part of the reason why schools don’t give more recess time besides the push for more academics in schools is the lack of staff to oversee the kids at recess. We both looked at each other laughing as we both said almost simultaneously, “Maybe it’s a good thing that they aren’t getting recess during school!”

Despite our realization of this I think we both know in our hearts that this rough free play is actually really good for them even with their need for structure and we both showed up at the playground again the following day with our boys to watch them play again, thankfully with less altercations this time. I have no plans to eliminate this play time from my child’s schedule anytime soon. He gets his much needed structure time from his teacher at school and I’m most grateful for that, but from me he is going to get the gift of free play. He needs more practice, clearly, and I’m going to make sure he gets it. So play on my sweet boy, play on!

“Make Way for Play” is a good article on the pros of free play.

Kathy Eugster writes a good article on providing structure for your child

Comparing the two preschool philosophies: Play-Based vs. Academic

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