If you want to develop that skill in your kids, let them play freely and often. Do not impose form and structure. Shun pre-packaged experiences and pre-packaged toys when you can.

It teaches us about ourselves. Our sense of self must be shaped internally, not externally. We need to learn what we’re good at and not good at—what we like and don’t like—on our own rather than being told by parents, coaches, and instructors. This is why it’s so important to let our kids try out lots of different activities (art, music, soccer, karate, gymnastics) rather than immersing them full-time in one or two that you prefer. It’s also why they need plenty of time not devoted to any structured activity at all.

In every episode of unstructured, unguided play, a child learns more and more about him or herself. It is this sense of self that provides a home base, a place to retreat to, throughout life.

Self-directed play is better for kids because ultimately they will have to turn back on their own resources and their sense of self. If they don’t have that they will be always looking for external direction and validation. Business leaders are saying that this constant looking outside for validation makes for workers who need too much time, resources and direction.

Kids who have no down time and no time for unstructured play never get to know themselves. They know only who others tell them they are. Getting to know oneself takes time and emotional energy, and when all that is spent trying to get a leg up on an academic career, or become the best soccer player on the field, there is no time left for the internal work of child development.

Learning who you are takes place not in the act of doing but in the quiet spaces between things. The more of these quiet spaces you can provide your kids, the better.

Madeline Levine, PhD, is a clinician, consultant, and educator; the author of New York Timesbestseller The Price of Privilege and Teach Your Children Well; and a cofounder of Challenge Success, a program founded at the Stanford School of Education that addresses education reform and student well-being. She lives outside San Francisco with her husband and is the proud mother of three newly minted adult sons.

Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success (HarperCollins, July 2012, ISBN: 978-0-0618247-4-6, $25.99) is available at bookstores nationwide and from all major online booksellers.

For more information, please visit www.madelinelevine.com.

Publication date: July 26, 2013