Parents’ motivation to choose structured play over unstructured play during the pre-school developmental years

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Pre-school children play an active role in their own development through their interaction with the environment and by way of unstructured play. Unstructured play is a creative expression of their physical, cognitive, social and emotional self. Unstructured play also creates opportunities to learn important skills and values necessary to master their world. Structured activities on the other hand offer pre-school children social interaction opportunities together with the opportunity to learn how to work in a team and follow certain commands.

Within the context of these two possibilities, parents seem to be more motivated to involve their children in different structured activities than to create opportunities where they can be exposed to unstructured play. This decision may contribute to moving against the natural development of pre-school children as a result of their increasing exposure to structured activities. The implication of this is that pre-school children’s empowerment of the self could be influenced.

The family systems theory by Harwood, Miller and Vasta and the field theory by Yontef guided the study. Family members, within the context of these two theories, are mutually influenced by each other in different ways. Decisions that parents take as the core element within the family system will therefore have significant influence on the development of the pre-school child.

The aim of this article is to establish what motivates parents to choose structured play over unstructured play during the pre-school developmental stage of their child. For this reason, a qualitative descriptive design was employed to purposively select potential participants who met the following inclusion criteria: Participants had to be parents (male or female) of children who were learners from two pre-determined pre-school centres in the Boland; both or only one parent of the family had to be able to participate in the study and participants had to be able to converse in Afrikaans or English. Sixteen (n=16) parents (only mothers) who met the inclusion criteria were selected. The main reason that only mothers participated in the study, according to the participants, was that the fathers worked during the time that the data were collected. The age difference of the participants (21 years to 50 years) is worth noting within the context of the outcomes of the findings.

Ethical clearance to conduct the study was obtained from the North-West University under ethical number NWU-00060-12-A1. After informed consent was obtained from the participants, they were involved in two separate focus group discussions. Each group consisted of eight focus group members. A focus group guide was developed which helped the researchers to obtain a clear picture and a sound knowledge of parents’ motivation to involve their pre-school children in structured activities rather than in unstructured play. Data obtained were thematically analysed through the use of the six steps by Clarke and Braun. 

The following two main themes were identified:

  • Participants’ perceptions of the value of unstructured play, and
  • Participants’ choices regarding unstructured play versus structured play. 

After the data were further analysed specific subthemes and categories were identified under each main theme. The categories of the second subtheme under the second main theme are discussed for the purpose of this article. From these findings it became evident that certain external factors motivate parents to involve their pre-school children in structured activities so as to enhance their development.

The development of self-discipline seems to be one of the main motivations for parents to choose structured activities over unstructured play for the pre-school children. Participants are of the opinion that pre-school children are able to control their behaviour through practising self-discipline which prepares them for the future. Participants are further of the opinion that the logical thinking of pre-school children is enhanced through their involvement in structured activities such as ballet and Kumon. Participants further believe that cognitive development takes place in pre-school children when they are involved in structured activities, as specific input of an adult is needed during structured activities. 

Peer pressure, which possibly borders on disguised mutual competition, is indicated as a further motivation for parents to involve their pre-school children in structured activities. Participants for instance are worried that their pre-school children might fall behind in their development when they do not partake in the different available structured activities. From the empirical data, it also appears that the participants measure the success of their parenting skills based on whether they are doing enough to promote their children’s development. While this sounds like a valid question, the researchers hold the view that this attitude can result in the over-scheduling of pre-school children’s day programmes, which could lead to stress and anxiety.

Unsafe environments are probably one of the main motivations for participants to choose rather to involve their pre-school children in structured activities. Participants feel they always have to supervise their pre-school children’s play activities due to the unsafety of the environments they live in. From the empirical study it seems as if participants lack knowledge with regard to the different ways in which unstructured play can occur and that it does not only have to be outside in nature.

The busy schedules of participants are yet another motivation to involve pre-school children in structured play, rather than unstructured play. It seems to be more convenient for participants to enrol their pre-school children in structured activities and by doing so they also feel less guilty about being too busy to pay attention to the development of their pre-school children. 

The worry of participants that their pre-school children might not be ready to start school, is a further motivation for involving their children in structured activities to enhance their development. Participants attribute this worry to their perceptions of the fast pace at which children are expected to work in school. These perceptions often seem to be unfounded and wrongly based on the opinions of mostly other parents.

Although recognition should be given to the influence that structured activities have on the development of the pre-school child, it is finding a balance between structured and unstructured play which will really contribute to the development of the pre-school child. It is therefore believed that professionals (such as teachers, social workers, educational psychologists, occupational therapists and paediatricians) who assist parents with their pre-school children should have a sound knowledge of early childhood development and the holistic way in which childhood development should be approached. 

Keywords: development; external factors; motivation; parents; pre-school children; structured play; unstructured play


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