Giving children the freedom to develop their own games improves their social skills and reasoning, writes Melinda Ham.
Imagine walking into a school playground and plonking down a few hay bales and a load of recycled materials - everything from plastic tubing to tyres, rope and foam Eskies. What would happen when the kids came out to play?
Professor Anita Bundy, of the University of Sydney, has been leading a team of seven academics recording and videotaping the results of such an experiment at 12 primary schools around Sydney's inner west in recent weeks.
"The children often started by trying to make the tallest structure possible," she says.
"Then they made ships, Luna Park, cubby houses, restaurants, forts and invaded the other side.
They played hockey with the [plastic] noodles. They made a horse and cart. It went on and on."
Bundy and her researchers are assessing the behaviour of 200 children in a study to be published in June. It will compare the behaviour of children who take part in unstructured play activities with that of those who don't. (Structured play involves organised sport and games with established rules, whereas unstructured play is open-ended and improvised.)
"Some of our questions were: does participating make them more active? Are they more social? And the answers were both yes," Bundy says. "In fact, the kids who didn't participate became more sedentary over the same period."
So what are the benefits of unstructured play?
"The children learnt how to co-operate," Bundy says. "They needed others to help them move a bale or a box. They couldn't carry it alone."
Bundy says there are other benefits of this type of play.
"They learnt resilience when they scraped their knee, and how to accept failure when something they built didn't work out. Kids played together who didn't usually play in that group."
At the same time, Bundy's team held seminars with the children's parents about "re-framing risk tolerance" to try to encourage them to give their children more unstructured play instead of filling up their spare time with activities such as ballet and piano lessons or soccer training.
"We asked them about their own childhoods and most of them had the most fun when there were no adults in the picture," Bundy says.
"They said they learnt to be vigilant. They enjoyed multi-aged play and they looked out for the little kids.
"Then we asked them, 'Were your parents negligent?' and then the penny dropped."
She argues that most children in Australia live in an environment with fewer dangers than in their parents' generation. "It's a safer world than it has ever been," Bundy says.
"The chances of your child being abducted, according to US statistics, are less than one in 750,000. And yet some parents are worried that if they let their kids play outside, they'll be reported to DOCs [Department of Corrections]."
A research fellow at the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW, Dr Jen Skattebol, is involved in a project being led by Scientia Professor Peter Saunders.
Among other issues, the team is analysing the longer-term effects of unstructured play on children aged 11 to 17 from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Skattebol's research involves these pre-teens and teenagers looking back on their experiences of childhood.
"Most have hardly had any structured play outside school," she says. "It's all been unstructured and there are quite a lot of advantages: they are really independent, strong, capable and very bonded, with a strong attachment to their peers.
"They have also developed harmonising behaviour - the ability to get along in a group."
Unlike middle-class children in other parts of Sydney, these children mostly come from families where there is a lack of resources for structured play or any adult-organised after-school activities.
"They find their own play areas, though, in parks or green spaces," Skattebol says. "They make cubbies out of what they can find. They create their own games, their own street music."
During this unstructured play many children - but not all - end up doing a lot of dramatic role-playing and make-believe, she says. "Sometimes the storyline continues over the day. There's a lot of space for taking up social roles and testing out executive control. At the same time, they learn how to listen to other kids."
But she points out that children need a balance between structured and unstructured activities or they might miss out on the chance to learn an instrument, play a sport or acquire other formal skills outside school, limiting their options later in life.
The NSW public schools autumn holidays start on Friday April 6 and end on Friday April 20.
Means open-ended, free play with endless possibilities. Playing with blocks, a Barbie, an action figure, a toy car or teddy is unstructured play. Painting or drawing on a blank piece of paper, making something out of recycled rubbish, freely running, skipping, jumping, climbing, building and wrestling is all free play.
Have you seen the benefits of unstructured play with your kids? Discuss with other members in the Essential Kids' Forums.
They learnt resilience when they scraped their knee, and how to accept failure when something they built didn't work out. Kids played together who didn't usually play in that group.