I meant to post this earlier in the week–it continues some themes covered here in the Bug Blog earlier.

Old-Fashioned Play Builds Cognitive Skills

“Chudacoff’s recently published history of child’s play argues that for most of human history what children did when they played was roam in packs large or small, more or less unsupervised, and engage in freewheeling imaginative play….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.”

This unstructured, unsupervised play is also what a lot of research suggests is essential to developing an environmental ethic as a child matures.

My parents let me run around completely wild and unsupervised for the first 8 years of my life. Bless Them. Not only did I learn to amuse myself and appreciate nature, I also probably benefited my immune system by being very filthy.

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Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. Excellent post.

    I too benefited from what I like to call the “benign neglect” of my parents. I think if you’re of a certain age these stories are similar.

    I don’t have kids, but it’s certainly a different time than when we were growing up. (I’m not saying it was better, just different). I’m glad I grew up when I did…but I don’t want to be one of those people who starts off by saying, “when I was a kid”…

    I haven’t paid too much attention to all this “Leave No Child Inside” business, but a lot of it seems like more “structured activity” to me. Which kind of defeats the purpose!

    I could go on and on. Don’t even get me started about our forts and tree houses! :)

  2. I agree to a point, but I think children need some guidance at first in the basics of entertaining themselves. Our boys have always had this, so they have wild, free-form, unsupervised adventures, but most people think they’ve arrived at this point by some sort of osmosis.

    In fact, there’s been a lot of subtle guidance and help over the years to the point where they now rarely need us for inspiration.

    On the other hand, when I helped supervise at playgroup, the paid staff were just adopting the “unstructured, unsupervised” mantra.

    The result was that groups of children would be given a bag of cardboard and food packaging, some glue and scissors, and left to their own devices. The result was always a mess and not much fun.

    The staff were horrified when I sat down with groups of children, asked for suggestions as to what we could make, helped them settle on one choice (eg animal masks), and then showed them basic craft techniques.

    I’d then encourage the children to think of their favourite animal, ask what it looked like, and asked how they could make their mask look like that. They’d then settle down to make their masks. If they asked for help, I’d encourage them to have a few tries on their own first, showing them how to improve their technique but without taking over from them.

    At the end of the session, the children were all beaming and were enormously proud to show their parents their identifiable masks.

    After I’d done this a few times, all I had to do was ask what they wanted to make (or do), they’d come up with an idea amongst themselves, and then run with it with minimal supervision. But, they needed to be taught those basic thinking, conceptualising and communicating skills first.

  3. I’m interpreting this as applying to play without “play objects”, Stonehead. So, turning them loose in a big field, rather than playing indoors.

    Although, I think the age of the kids is also important. Turning a pack of 2 yr olds loose on the world is probably not a good idea.

  4. Oh, I don’t want to imply my childhood was unsupervised anarchy. That didn’t happen until I was 14 or so, lol…

    What I will say is that there were many times when I was told (if/when it was needed) to “go chase myself” by my folks!

    In hindsight it was those times when I’d poke around old fields, ponds, creeks, railroad tracks, etc. with my buddies (or alone) that helped make me who I am.

    Don’t EVEN get me started about fireworks, hahaha!

  5. My childhood *was* unsupervised anarchy, and I’m damn glad of it!

    I doubt my parents ever knew where I was from dawn to dusk from the age of 5 to 12.
    (After that we moved to Texas, and I discovered boys.)

  6. What I was saying applies outside as well.

    We started the boys off with ideas and skills, then eased off on the structure and supervision to the point where they now zoom out and disappear for hours.

    As an example, we have a windbreak of trees. A couple of years back I cut a path into it, cleared an area of nettles and stones, and suggested it could be a den, base, hideout or similar. I played a few imaginative games with them, gave them a few props and then backed off (unless they ask me to join in). They’ve now created further tracks, accumulated all sorts of materials and built it up into the Action Team Base.

    At the weekend, they were out there tying sheep bones to a couple of staves to make some sort of ghost-scarer thing.

    But when they had a slightly older child visit recently, he was at a complete loss as to what to do. Our boys had to show him the ropes, as it were, but after a couple of hours “training” he was really getting into it. Then he had to go home.

    You have to learn the fundamentals of creative, unstructured play before you can really make the most of it. Children can learn it from each other, but only if some of them have the skills to pass on. Our boys certainly do!

  7. And now you know why so many of your readers want you to adopt us, Stonehead!

    Your boys are very lucky, and will grow into spectacular young men. I can predict that even without psychic powers.

  8. Stonehead –

    Thank goodness “forts” are still alive somewhere out there for kids! I feel better about the world already…

  9. They went through an explorer phase recently. They tucked their trousers into their socks, “borrowed” a couple of rucksacks, “borrowed” the broom handle and mop handle for staves, and set off with their tent, water bottles, a couple of apples and some bread, and other supplies to find the Lost Caves of Bangarang.

    Talking to them later, I was told they’d found a crashed plane with skeleton (complete with spiders in the eye sockets, you’ll like that touch, Bug Girl), a herd of mammoths, rescued a lost seagull called Bert, and found a great treasure in the Lost Caves (a horseshoe I painted silver for them some time back).

    Hope that improves things still further, Dave.

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