Free Play or Structured Activities for Six-Year-Olds: How Do They Learn Best?


Children Having Fun at ParkThe snapshot of a six-year-old is decidedly different from when he was four or five. Their attention spans have increased along with their self-control. They are excited about learning, very active, and wonderfully social and loveable.

While schools tend to focus on cognitive growth with structured activities, research shows that free play brings about cognitive changes at least as quickly if not even faster. There are countries outside of the U.S. that don’t begin to teach reading until age seven and those readers do just as well as their American counterparts.

Language Development

Six-year-olds have vast vocabularies especially if they are read to often and engaged in frequent conversations. Like little sponges they absorb what they hear. They enjoy following directions and can remember several instructions at once. Their pronunciation can’t be beat and their sentence structure can be quite sophisticated. When they hear a word for the first time they want to know what it means. They also can understand how the same word can have different meanings in different contexts.


Six-year-olds count to 200 and understand addition and subtraction. Some do their arithmetic by rote understanding if that is how they are taught. They can memorize rules and carry them out. However, left to their own devices many of these children do math in their minds understanding conceptually how mathematics works. I’ve seen many astute children of this age add multiple three place numbers without learning the rules of “carrying” numbers. They don’t have the mathematical vocabulary to explain what they do, but they visualize in their minds number concepts and solve problems. Why take that away from them by memorizing rules?

In the U.S. we teach counting from one to ten and then count eleven, twelve, thirteen,etc. In some Asian countries numbers past ten are called ten plus one, ten plus two, ten plus three, etc. which is easier to conceptualize and thus many of these children become far more advanced earlier in math than their American peers.

Fantasy and Reality

Children this age are on the border of knowing the difference between pretend and real. While this is helpful when you awaken from a nightmare, fantasy shouldn’t be discouraged in daytime play. By fantasizing different characters with toy figures acting out different stories, imaginations soar while daily problems are acted out and mastered in the imaginary stories created. Lots of written homework with little time for free play is a mistake if you want your child to learn quickly and make discoveries about how to solve problems and manage conflict.

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Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst and author who does psychotherapy with infants and parents, children, adolescents, and adults. Dr. Hollman’s new book: Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and She writes about infant, child and adolescent development, mental health, Parental Intelligence, and a broad range of parenting topics.


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