This article appears in April Family magazine.

In an age when kids go from school to sports practice to music lessons to dinner to homework and then to bed, there’s a growing movement to prioritize the value of unstructured play.

Parents who feel pressure to heavily schedule their children’s lives may be letting the well-known benefits of creative play slip away, said Melissa Bernstein, co-founder and chief creative officer of the Melissa & Doug toy company.

“There is a ton of research about the value of unstructured play,” Bernstein said, adding that the most powerful learning experiences often happen when children are given the latitude to work things out on their own: To create their own rules of the game, to problem-solve, to think critically and originally, and make their own decisions.

Melissa & Doug recently partnered with Gallup to conduct a nationwide study on how children up to age 10 spend their free time, and parents’ attitudes and anxieties about those activities.

The research found that children spend their free time involved in “diverse” activities, but that neither parents nor children “prioritize child-led, unstructured indoor play.” Parents rank unstructured, indoor play near the bottom of their preferred activities for children.

“There’s is a misconception in how important a role creativity plays,” said Brandon Busteed, Gallup’s executive director of education and workforce development.

Parents value creativity somewhere in the middle, and instead prefer children take part in activities that they feel have a stronger academic value.

“Parents don’t see the academic value of play. They don’t see a tangible reward. Instead, they prefer that a child takes part in an activity that builds a skill or a sport,” Busteed said.

More than creativity

When it comes to unstructured play, 57 percent of parents feel the only skill children get out of it is creativity. Only 3 in 10 believe unstructured play will help kids develop problem-solving, self-confidence, artistic or other skills.

What’s missing is that “unstructured play and what a child learns through play is the underpinning of everything he or she will become in life,” Busteed said.

Unstructured play is an activity that “is purely seeking joy,” Bernstein said. It’s self-directed with no goal, no performance criteria.

“These open-ended experiences allow them to discover themselves,” Bernstein said.

Screen time, big time

Parents estimate that their children spend an average of 19 hours per week watching media or playing on electronic devices versus the 15 hours they spend engaging in child-led play indoors.

“Parents believe giving their child a screen is helping them,” Busteed said.

According to their parents, children’s second- and third-most-preferred activities involve screen-based play: watching media and playing on electronic devices, both of which are parents’ least-preferred choices for their children. Older children (ages 9 and 10) spend almost twice as much time engaging in indoor screen-based play than in indoor screen-free play.

A better way to play

According to the research, most parents feel compelled to fill their children’s free time. When they suddenly grow up, will they know how to lead?

While parents have good intentions, “boredom is a great motivator,” Bernstein said. “Even in school, kids don’t get to direct their own time or learning. How are we training them to do that?”

If you want your child to crush it in play, you can give them unstructured free time while still keeping an eye on them. Recruit yourself or a neighbor to sit outside while kids make their own games in the yard, Busteed said. Indoors, provide “inspiration baskets” with open-ended arts and crafts, games, dice, cards and role-playing costumes, Bernstein said.

“Parents are worried to step on technology, that they may be imposing on their kid’s social life. Have faith. Give the gift of play. The best things happen during downtime.” Bernstein said.

The report

See the full report at melissaanddoug.com/gallup-study-time-to-play.html