Before I went to graduate school and embarked on a professional career, I flirted with the world of hippie-dom for a few years. I was captivated by Jack Kerouac’s writing that extolled the life of on-the-road spontaneity and the freedom to “dig” all that was around us. I spent my share of time at Grateful Dead shows, captivated as I was by their “make it up as you go along” ethos, embodied in the lyric “Gone are the days we stop to decide…Where we should go – We just ride.” Even though I was never a full-fledged hippie (my wife reminds me that I like showers and air conditioning too much to be a real hippie) I entered the world of human services very much in that mindset.
When I started running my own groups, there were times I’d bring that outlook to bear in the way I structured – or rather, didn’t structure – my groups. Rather than creating an agenda for my group, I’d often go into a session with nothing in mind. My feeling was that I’d try to follow the group’s lead, respond to their moods and preferences, and gently steer the agenda in a productive direction rather than imposing a preconceived program that might not have suited that particular group on that particular day.
I don’t run my groups that way anymore. As anyone who saw the Grateful Dead more than a couple of times can attest, while there were many moments of inspiration and empathic collaboration in the music, there were also plenty of times the music fell flat. Group improvisation doesn’t work too well when musicians, for whatever reason, aren’t in sync with each other during a performance. My groups often devolved to a similar state of listlessness or chaos.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve seen a lot of articles that have been touting the virtues of unstructured play for kids. Pieces in The Washington Post, Education Week, The Atlantic, and other sources point out the many benefits of stepping back and letting kids figure things out for themselves as they just play. In general, I’m a big supporter of this idea. Some of these articles cite studies that link kids’ participation in unstructured play with the development of executive functions. Aside from the empirical support cited for this association in the articles, it makes a great deal of sense on an intuitive level as well. When kids play with each other and don’t have an adult scripting the experience, they need to address issues of time management, emotional regulation, flexibility, impulse control, and a host of other considerations. And they have fun while they’re doing it, which, after all is said and done, is really the point.
While there’s a lot to recommend about this approach to children’s play, its utility isn’t as universal as we’d hope. Among quirky kids – those with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Anxiety, and other associated issues – the benefits gleaned from unstructured play are often overwhelmed by the challenges that come along with it.
If you know a parent of a child with ADHD, go ahead and ask him or her what the most challenging parts of a school day are for their child. It’s a good bet that the answer is going to be one of the following: 1) The school bus, 2) Recess, 3) Lunchtime, or 4) Transitions. What do those times have in common? Those are the times during a typical school day when the structure is minimized or non-existent. Social and behavioral expectations are often loosely implied rather than being clearly and explicitly stated. Adults are not positioned to provide a consistent flow of limit-setting or feedback. Kids who are susceptible to becoming overstimulated, distracted, or impulsive tend to get overwhelmed and lose sight of boundaries. Kids who struggle to read social cues or who may have trouble seeing “the big picture” tend to fall through the cracks when the explicit rules and guidelines they rely upon are taken away. Kids who struggle with perspective taking can lose sight of the fact that their peers may not share their enthusiasm for whatever activity or plan they might have in mind. Rather than seeing unstructured times as being fun and enriching, quirky kids may see them as just another frustrating social experience.
So, what are parents of quirky kids to do? Should they try to help their kids avoid failure and frustration by steering them away from unstructured play? Or should they, in effect, throw their kids to the wolves, figuring that the skills they can gain justify the frustrations and stumbles that go along with it. Neither extreme is all that enticing.
The trick is to find a middle ground where skills can be acquired without self-image being devastated in the process. Success depends on many factors but one of the most important is having a good sense about where to set the bar. In general, the right place is at a height that’s challenging for kids but not so challenging that, with some effort, they can’t get over it most of the time. If the bar is too low, kids don’t learn new skills and often wind up getting bored or complacent. Set it too high and the struggles and frustration involved with getting over it wind up drowning out any new skills that may have been acquired along the way.
There are a number of adaptations that you can use that serve the purpose of adding a little bit of structure or scaffolding to unstructured play. Here are just a few:
1) Don’t leave things entirely open ended. Instead of having the kids fashion their own agenda from scratch, offer them a finite number of choices.
2) Place time limits on the unstructured or open-ended aspect of a play date. Suggest to the kids that they play on their own for a certain period of time before you all do an activity together or you begin to set more specific parameters. Try to monitor things as they progress so minor frustration doesn’t escalate quickly into heavy drama.
3) Talk things through with your child prior to the start of the play. Anticipate the potential pitfalls or problem areas and provide suggestions on how to deal with them.
4) Make adaptations that add some structure to activities that are usually open-ended. For example, if the kids opt for playing with Lego’s, sit down and help them figure out what they’re going to build before they get to it.
5) Establish clear rules or boundaries about what is and what is not permitted. Think about what activities have the potential to escalate quickly into conflict and make sure the kids know that they’re not allowed.
With a few tweaks here and there, it’s possible to help quirky kids experience the fun and benefits that can only be gained from unstructured play. Sharing the exhilaration of making it up as you go along leaves you open to new experience and lets you truly live in the moment. Why should the jam bands have all the fun?