He started preschool just before his fourth birthday and he spent two years in the same classroom, playing and crafting to his heart’s delight with a teacher who had a deep understanding of his introverted nature. That extra year gave him time to develop at a natural pace. He learned to read at age four, curled up in my lap with a stack of books by his side. He learned to trust his teachers and understand the mechanics of early friendships is his preschool classroom. Most importantly, he had tons of time to play.
According to a new study, delaying kindergarten (or redshirting) has its benefits. Published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in early October, the study found strong evidence that delaying kindergarten by one year is linked to better self-regulation skills, including lower levels of inattention and hyperactivity. The results were shown to persist at age 11.
As both a child psychotherapist and a mom, I am a firm believer in the power of play and the gift of time. All too often we feel the pull to race kids through childhood. Where once kids began soccer at age 10, now toddlers take the field at age 2. Where once kids played outside, unstructured, for hours at a time, today kids are overscheduled and highly structured.
When I talk to parents about the importance of slowing down and taking back childhood, I find that they always have the best intentions. They want their kids to have fun and try new things. With so many things available to children of all ages, parents feel left behind if they do say no to the culture of busy.
This study is important reminder that children need time to develop. Pushing them ahead doesn’t guarantee academic success later in life, and it can result in stress. Check out some of the benefits of unstructured play before you make decisions about starting school.
1. Play develops emotional regulation. Kids learn to identify and process their feelings through unstructured play. They work through frustration, anxiety, sadness, and a variety of other feelings (both positive and negative) while lost in imaginative play. Children also experience stress relief through the context of play. Just this morning I watched my son play out some behaviors he sees at school that he finds frustrating. As he worked through it, I saw relief wash over his face.
2. It creates connections. Parents of “quiet” kids often ask me how to connect with children who are more withdrawn or prefer quiet activities. My answer is always the same: Get down on the floor and play. Play helps children learn how to relate to others. No matter the personality of your child, your parent-child bond will increase when you spend time playing with him. What parents see as time for fun is actually important work for children. Taking turns, solving problems, practicing communications skills, and expressing empathy for others are all huge benefits of time spent playing.
3. Play makes kids more creative. You can enroll your little kids in all the toddler enrichment programs you want, but the truth is the best way to help your kids develop their creativity is to give them time to play without limits. Toddler crafting is fun and creative, but only if you let them do it their way. Sure, there’s something to be said for learning to follow step-by-step directions. But when we give them the freedom to follow their own steps, they learn to tap into creative thinking. They learn to solve their own problems and follow through on their ideas. Creativity isn’t just about music and art; creativity exists in the imagination. The next time your child wants to turn your house upside down converting your family room into an airplane, try to think less about the potential mess and more about the exercise in creativity. Then hand over the cardboard boxes and ask how you can help. Your kid will be better for it.
More on Cognitive Development:
- 3 Secrets to Raising Kids Who Don’t Give Up
- 7 Signs Your Child Needs to See a Therapist
- Why Your ADHD Child Should Be Allowed to Move Around in School