(Lauren Knight)

The huge purple ball sails through the evening air and slaps my 7-year-old son smack in the middle of the face before bouncing back toward the opposing team, consisting of two 3-year-olds and two fathers, one of whom holds a little one in his arms as he rushes to meet the ball and attempt another goal. There is just the slightest hesitation before we all erupt into laughter; the ball is harmless and even when the biggest players kick it as hard as they can, the littlest players are unscathed.

I feel my heart pumping as I chase after the ball, slipping and sliding on the grass still wet from a straight week of rain. My 5-year-old is, predictably, playing with the torn net of the goal and talking to himself, but when the ball comes his way, he bats it away, yelling out “I got it!” to the second goalie who shares the space with him. My 3-year-old rushes up, grabs the enormous ball, and starts to run away with it before we all shout, “Hands only! Kick it, buddy!” He runs off anyway, delighted at the chase. And the game goes on and on until it’s well past dinnertime. Neighbors drop out one at a time and head home, pushing strollers and little bikes up the hill to our street.

It may be chaotic at times, but make no mistake; this weekly pick-up game of soccer has already taught many lessons to the neighborhood kids who join. There are no age restrictions and there is certainly no referee with a whistle. There is no advanced league where the best players are removed from the regular team and only compete with each other.

Instead, adults, children, and toddlers trickle in, being randomly assigned to teams as they show up. Sometimes the teams are grossly unfair; people shift around until it feels right, and they just have fun.

Half a year ago, my oldest son, then 6, would stomp off and cry on the sidelines when a play didn’t go his way. No one coddled him or stopped playing; instead, we encouraged him while we still played, “Come back in! We need you!” and soon after, an understanding of grace and sportsmanship was born. Now there are no tears when his team loses or when the other team scores; he is all smiles regardless of the outcome. In fact, the only time he is sad is when it is time to pack up and go home.

So far, this is the extent of our sons’ extra-curricular activities. They spend their weekdays at school from 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., then head home to do whatever they desire. Some days they want to go to the playground. Other days, they are quiet and calm on the drive home and seek out solitude when they arrive. One may go upstairs with a book while another builds with blocks in the living room, and the youngest usually seeks out some serious pretend play with his garbage truck. There are days when they decide to paint, and days when they request time at the library. But whatever it is they do, it is their choice. The hours after school and before dinner are completely theirs. And that is something which we are not yet ready to compromise.

Over the past few years, the importance of unstructured play, or a set of activities that a child creates on his own without guidance from an adult, has come into the parenthood conversation. As it turns out, unstructured play is extremely important to developing children.

Nearly 10 years ago, Hilary L. Burdette and Robert C. Whitaker wrote in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine that unstructured play time promotes cognitive, intellectual, and emotional growth, as well as problem-solving, one of the highest executive functions.

A June 2014 study by researchers mainly from the University of Colorado Boulder found that children whose time is less structured are better able to meet their own goals, without prodding from adults. Free play activates creative thinking, in addition to developing a child’s imagination, dexterity, and physical strength. It is also crucial to healthy brain development.

What’s more, according to a 2007 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, a loss of free time can result in increased stress, anxiety, and even depression in children. The study states that more and more children are losing their unscheduled time due to a more hurried lifestyle and added pressures due to increases in enrichment activities and academics. Well-meaning parents are over-scheduling their children’s lives and there is no time left for unstructured play.

This is not to say that a busy, scheduled lifestyle is bad; many families thrive in their highly driven schedules. I only suggest that even those children need some unstructured time to decompress — we all do.

So for now, we will skip the extra-curriculars, the after-school soccer practices, the Saturday games, the piano lessons and tee-ball. We will play pick-up soccer at the uneven patchy neighborhood field on Sunday afternoons if we feel like it, and we will enjoy the sounds of laughter and joy.

Lauren Knight blogs at Crumb Bums.

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