Kids and Unstructured Play Time

Scheduling every minute of my child’s day and giving them the latest game systems was not what I wanted for my girls.

By Jackie Saulmon Ramirez | April 11, 2013

A rubber hot-water bottle wrapped in a blanket became a “real baby” for my four-year-old daughter.

Attending a Parents Anonymous group helped me plan ahead in order to do what I felt was right for my children. I wanted to stimulate and develop my daughter’s interests, imagination and problem solving skills. Listening to other parents also taught me to avoid many problems before they occurred, like kids that were bored and needed to be occupied or entertained every minute of the day.

Several parents talked about game systems causing problems between siblings and sometimes spouses too. Some also worried about game addictions and violence in games changing their children’s personality and behavior. Almost everyone agreed that their children were not getting enough exercise outdoors, partly because they were sitting playing games. One mother said games were great though, primarily because they helped develop eye-hand coordination.

I made the decision not to buy those popular game systems until my daughters were older. I focused on letting them use their imaginations with a lot of unstructured play. What did they do? They came up with their own forms of fun and entertainment; I added whatever they needed while being careful with cost.

When Katie was about four, she took our old hot water bottle and turned it into a ‘baby’ by wrapping a blanket around it. She played with it so much that it finally sprang a leak. I bought a new one for her but she said it didn’t feel the same. I asked her to explain and she liked its warmth and weight. I got to work cutting and sewing an old sock into a brand new ‘baby’ complete with felt clothes, yarn hair, wiggly eyes, sewn on lips and filled with dry beans for weight. Katie loved it and played with the bean ‘baby’ until beans started to poke through little holes in the socks. She finally retired it in favor of new interests and she still has it in her room, refusing to get rid of it.

Chelsey and Katie loved playing pretend with one favorite being dress-up. I picked up a frilly pink dress for Chelsey and bright yellow one for Katie at yard sales, both for less than $10. They served refreshments, danced, chatted and laughed for years till neither fit into the dresses any longer.

Katie and Chelsey played ‘store,’ ‘office’ and ‘school’ for hours. A cabinet held extra school supplies and the kitchen had anything else they needed. They made their own play money; bills and coins while learning to count change. They had sales and gave 10% discounts on any dented cans. I splurged to supply them with plastic pork chops, eggs, hamburgers, bread, etc. to the tune of about $5. With this they learned budgeting and a bit about business transactions.

A cardboard box triggered the imagination: baby beds, zoos, cars— you name it!

Chelsey and Katie wanted to ‘cook’ so I took a leftover board from one of my projects, black and red permanent markers and a yellow highlighter to create a ‘stove top’ complete with pretend flames for them. I often wondered how they found so much to talk about. I reminded to wash and return my pots and pans to the cabinets. The two set up a ‘post office’ with paper ‘mail boxes’ affixed to their bedroom doors with mounting putty. They wrote notes, letters and invitations to each other to teas, bargain for toys or chores.

Rather than a babysitter or television, hand the kids an empty cardboard box that would quickly transform into a car, hideout or a house. Smaller versions became zoos, bird nests, baby beds or robots. Paper bags from the grocery store would become a costume or a suit with lapels.

Our miniature poodle was often their toy of choice even though he had very thin hair— so thin that he needed to wear sweaters on cold days. We cut up jogging pants legs to make his sweaters and Katie and Chelsey loved dressing and changing his clothes. They used cushions to build a maze and let him find his way out before giving him a treat.

Katie and Chelsey played train by putting two chairs together, one in front of the other, during a travel segment on TV. In the basement, they learned to play traffic with roller skates and a bicycle. These two taught them how important courtesy was ‘on the road.’

While the girls played well together, they were equally able to entertain themselves alone. Chelsey loved beading, weaving potholders and reading the most— Babysitters’ Club to Stephen King— she devoured the written word. She enjoyed all kinds of crafts but beading was at the top of her list. Katie created artworks, wrote stories, cooked and read about many things, a few favorites were Egyptology and unicorns. She had a gift for music; piano, violin, Irish whistles and later the cello.

Unstructured play gave Chelsey and Katie the opportunity to explore their many interests. They gained real-life problem solving skills while having a lot of fun. If I had it all to do over I don’t think I would change a thing.

If you had a do-over with your children, would you change anything? If so, what would it be? I would love to hear from you.

Copyright © 2014 Jackie Saulmon Ramirez. All Rights Reserved.

New Jersey 24-Hour Family Helpline: 1-800-THE-KIDS

Parents Anonymous® of New Jersey, Inc.
Phone: (609) 585-7666
Fax: (609) 585-7686

Join the Online Support Group
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Parents Anonymous® Inc.
Phone: (909) 621-6184
Fax: (909) 621-0614

National Parent Helpline
1-855-4A PARENT OR 1-855-427-2736
Hours: Monday – Friday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. PST

About Jackie Saulmon Ramirez

Jackie has volunteered for more than twenty years for children and family issues. Currently she writes for parents in the "Reminder" and "Parent Rap" Facebook page. If you are interested in receiving the "Reminder," send her a message.
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