Thanks to my network of amazing moms, I came across this NPR story from 2008: Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills. Listen to the original airing of the show here. Researchers say that unstructured play not only helps children develop creativity and imagination, but also self-regulation.
It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.
I’m a huge fan of giving kids space to do their own thing. Coming from a family who restricted my activities to avoid injury, failure and conflict, I want my boys to have more freedom than I did. Freedom to play, imagine, invent, make messes, be loud, and yes, to fall.
One of the best parenting books I ever read is The Blessing Of A Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel. Whenever I see H doing crazy things like hanging upside-down on the monkey bars, I remember this book. And I remember that these are things I never had the courage to attempt as a child.
On this particular day, I fought against my over-protective mothering instincts and encouraged H to let go of the bar with his hands so he could just hang by his feet. He didn’t want to because it was too scary, but he said he’d try it when he’s 6. Whew, was that a sign of self-regulation? Maybe I’m doing something right as a parent.