43 Ways our Kids Thrive on Free Play

Is your child getting enough ‘free play’?

Child-led free play – the unstructured time during which children can act out their fantasies, create their own rules, and explore the world at their own pace – profoundly benefits their early development.

But here’s the thing:

While experts agree that undirected play is vital, it is disappearing in favor of organized athletic, artistic, and academic activities. In moderation, these structured classes can be enriching, but ditching playtime all together comes at a cost to a child’s growth and wellbeing.

As you consider and plan your child’s weekly routine, here are 43 vital reasons to prioritize and safeguard free play.

Benefits of Free Play [Infographic]

43 Ways our Kids Thrive on Free Play

Let’s take a closer look…

From the cognitive to the physical, research shows that free play can allow our little ones to gain self-confidence, promote neurological development, and even enhance their fine motor skills.

Let’s dive in and take a closer look at why child-development experts recommend that screen time and structured learning ought to make way for more opportunities to play:

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Character & Personality

1. Boosts confidence and self-esteem

Free play involves every part of a child’s being; mind, body, and soul. Through this play style, kids are able to naturally explore their physicality as well as engage in independent learning. The result is a child who is building their confidence, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and empowering their potential as human beings, all while having fun. (Source / Source / Source)

2. Teaches the ability to recover quickly from setbacks

A child might be frustrated when the last block they are stacking topples their masterpiece or upset when the red marker runs dry and that apple on the page must be colored a different shade. These are necessary experiences for healthy brain development, and low-stakes situations like these are the perfect time for your kiddo to learn how to bounce back from disappointment or change things up and still be happy with the end result. (Source)

3. Helps with overcoming emotional trauma or disturbance

Fantasy play, or role play, enables young ones to uncover, address, and articulate any distressing feelings and/or conflicts. Some psychoanalysts believe that the skills built from play are essential for the cognitive development that is needed to process a particularly traumatizing event. (Source)

4. Grows personal resilience

Free play is rife with opportunities for children to learn about social skills, including idea sharing, self-control, and even how to handle exclusion and power dynamics within a group. It also teaches them how to regulate their own emotions while becoming sensitive to the values and needs of their peers. Figuring out how to deal with disappointing, different, or frustrating group-dynamics in a healthy and productive way will benefit children for their entire lives. (Source / Source)

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5. Reduces childhood stress and anxiety

Research suggests that over-protection from having ever been exposed to risk-taking activities can actually increase a child’s anxiety all the way into adulthood. Because free play inherently encourages a level of risk-taking with relatively low-stakes, it is the perfect opportunity for children to get these experiences under their belts.

Another aspect of free play that can lower stress is imaginary friends, especially when it comes to boys; they tend to have a decreased level of fear and anxiety during later play sessions. (Source / Source)

6. Increases empathy

Through imaginary play, children can put themselves in all sorts of situations, thus exploring new roles and the feelings that come with them. By engaging in free play with their friends, their cooperation, sharing, helping, and empathy skills will grow by the game. (Source)

7. Encourages expression of views, experiences, and frustrations

Free play provides us with a wonderful window into the minds of our children. It is an excellent way for our kids to express safely, both to their parents and to themselves, what they are feeling. Even when their language isn’t quite at a level to articulate their fears, excitements, or opinions, the type of free play they engage in will speak volumes. (Source)

8. May lead to the discovery of interests and life passions

Psychologist Peter Gray makes a strong case in favor of incorporating free time into our kids’ lives, contending that it allows children to cultivate their own interests and passions in a way that strictly regimented schedules do not. Without the structure of preplanned events, activities or lessons, children will inevitably experience and, more importantly, find ways to overcome boredom. Where that takes them could be something they fall in love with for life. (Source)

9. Nurtures a sense of self and place in the world

Free play has a way of fostering our children’s ability to grow as people, often by merely expanding on that which they have previously learned. Whether they are honing their skills in problem-solving, communicating their wants, or just discovering that those blocks are made for more than knocking over, play can be a great foundation on which to build a sense of self. (Source)

10. Outdoor play develops respect for nature

Is there a better arena for playtime than the great outdoors? Hardly, and not just because when our kiddos take the mess outside it means less vacuuming for us. Playing outside can allow children to develop a greater respect and understanding of mother nature. (Source)

11. Trains children to recognize and avoid potentially dangerous situations

We need our kids to be able to identify a situation that is genuinely threatening, whether it is on the playground or in their future adult lives. Many experts believe that this ability starts young, and comes from the type of risk-taking and self-challenges that occur during free play. (Source)

12. Inspires exploration of the world

Encouraging strong bonds within our families is essential, but so is teaching our children how to play away from their parental figures. Much to our motherly chagrin, our kids need to stretch their independence so that they can confidently explore their world, and free play is an excellent way for them to do so. (Source)

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13. Reduces or conquers fears

The risk-taking that occurs in play is, in some ways, a mirror of cognitive behavioral therapy. Both teach children how to engage in less negative thinking regarding their anxieties, thus reducing maladaptive behavior in stressful situations. Studies show that imaginary friends can also reduce stress in both boys and girls, so by all means, set an extra place at the table for the unseen Annie or Andrew. (Source)

14. Allows children to practice for adult roles

Role play can provide children the room to explore situations well above their pre-school pay grade and, in turn, prepare them for their futures as adult members of society. Whether they pretend to be chiefs, doctors, cops, or astronauts, this type of sociodramatic play enables them to try on more mature personas, along with all the trappings that come with such a position. (Source)

15. Provides feedback on beliefs about the world

Free play can teach a child that fitting a round block into a square hole will be tricky, if not impossible, no matter how much they push. While this example is a little rudimentary, it demonstrates one way that free play is showing our kids that sometimes things are the way they are and you will need to change your strategy to solve a problem, regardless of your wants or beliefs. (Source)

16. Expands the ability to consider others’ viewpoints

Perhaps one of the most natural lessons our children learn from fantasy play is how to put themselves in another person’s shoes. As they role play, they explore the world from different viewpoints and can even mentally traverse cultures and boundaries beyond their everyday experiences. (Source / Source)

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Brain & Mind

17. Develops cognitive abilities

Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget, two of the most renowned psychologists of the 20th century, believed play to be a pivotal part of cognitive development. While further study is needed for definitive results, modern research suggests that play can help increase neural structures, assist in learning, and may even help children cope with complex mental health issues. (Source / Source)

18. Improves decision-making skills

As our children engage in what might look like silly games to us, they are actually honing their ability to pick between several options. While playing, they are independently practicing their decision-making skills, something that will go on to enhance their ability to make choices. (Source / Source)

19. Increases creativity

Compared to activities that were not initiated by children, child-led play, specifically social-fantasy play, was shown to support the creative imaginations of youngsters. This creativity can, in turn, make a boring task meaningful, even fun, and give a child a sense of control and contribution to their world. (Source / Source / Source)

20. Nurtures imagination

One can argue that playfulness and imagination go hand in hand. The more a child is allowed to play, the more they can enact their fantasies to make the impossible become possible. This leads to a healthy exploration of the world, as well as a creative way to regard and use ordinary objects. (Source)

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21. Supports learning readiness

Studies have demonstrated a positive relationship when it comes to the act of play and a student’s learning ability, with some researchers concluding that the primary mechanisms supporting a child’s ability to learn are acquired through social relationships, including those between peers. It’s worth noting that free play encourages such interactions. (Source, Kumar & Harizuka, 1998; Lieberman, 1977)

22. Boosts problem-solving skills

Children experience an increase in their abilities to solve problems when allowed to play games and complete puzzles. On the other side of the spectrum, children rendered unable to engage in creative play, such as those who have experienced trauma, lack the capacity to fully access their problem-solving skills. (Source / Source)

23. Promotes free and flexible thinking

Free play strips away all rules, expectations, and time frames, encouraging our kids to think for themselves. Play can be quiet and solitary or loud and social; a child engaging in creative play assumes total control over the type of games they are creating. When not bound by adult-set rules, they are free to manipulate their environment in unique ways. (Source / Source)

24. Enhances language development

When a child participates in social play, they will find themselves both listening to and mimicking the way language is used by others. Some assert that this type of play enhances a child’s vocabulary, with researcher Sara Smilansky asserting that fantasy play will aid in both speech and language development. (Source / Source / Source)

25. Gives rise to concepts of size, shape, and texture

A child will have a hard time stacking large blocks on top of a very tiny block or fitting a square peg into a circular hole. These are ways that, through interacting with the objects around them, children are internalizing the concepts of size, texture, and shape. (Source)

26. Strengthens ability to pay attention

When we see toddlers or infants playing side by side with no peer-to-peer interaction, our first instinct might be to wish they could be more social. However, these little ones are learning vital skills: those of concentration and focusing on their own needs. Self-directed play can enhance a child’s ability to concentrate and should be encouraged. (Source / Source)

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Physical Development

27. Promotes physical activity and health

When children partake in physical activity, they are developing muscle strength, strong bones, and a healthy lung capacity. Free play, especially outdoor play, is great for keeping kids moving and healthy. (Source)

28. Refines fine motor skills

Certain types of play are great for getting those little hands working to their potential. Games involving block-stacking or arts and crafts activities can encourage the development of fine motor abilities and finger control, things that will ultimately be necessary for handwriting skills. (Source)

29. Increases gross motor skills

Research shows that a vast majority of infants and toddlers gain vital movement skills through free play that involves physical activity. They may even go on to have fewer bump and bruise-inducing accidents later. Meanwhile, kids lacking these abilities will tend to shy away from physical activities later in life. (Source)

30. Expands manual dexterity

By three months of age, babies will express an interest in reaching for, grasping, and maneuvering objects. Providing toys to our babies and children will help them practice and grow their skills in dexterity by encouraging their natural inclinations to handle fun gadgets of curiosity. (Source)

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Emotional & Social Skills

31.Teaches children how to manage emotions

Play allows children to work through their conflicting feelings, as well as to express feelings that are unacceptable in a way that is socially acceptable. When engaging in group play, kids are learning to better communicate and behave in a manner that allows the interaction to continue, thus receiving a natural reward for their behavior. (Source / Source / Source)

32. Builds the ability to cooperate and work in groups

Social play allows children to become comfortable navigating group dynamics at a young age. It is also a time for them to learn that their actions can impact those around them and that that impact can have negative consequences. (Source)

33. Develops the capacity to receive and respond to feedback

Kids can receive input from their equals, as well as work on communication and the taking of different perspectives, while they play. In fact, by engaging in peer play prior to entering kindergarten, children are provided with a robust framework for the transition into to school. Entering the world of academics will, of course, involve having to process both positive and negative feedback from peers and adults alike, so coming into the gate with this skillset is a huge plus. (Source)

34. Trains children how to negotiate and resolve conflicts

Social play presents the potential for conflict, and kids need to experience conflict to learn how to handle it in a healthy way. As they master the ability to negotiate with their peers, they realize that sometimes you have to give a little to get a little. (Source)

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35. Encourages self-advocacy

Standing up for oneself is a skill that every human being needs to hone in their youth in order to become healthy adults. Free play not only teaches our kids how to navigate a negotiation but also how to make sure that any compromise they make takes their own needs into account. (Source)

36. Grows and nurtures friendship

Free play can foster the development of healthy relationships with both a child’s peers and the adults in their lives. Roleplay, especially, has been shown to promote strong adult-child connections and can provide young people with a sense of belonging. (Source)

37. Teaches children how to socialize

We want our kids to be able to fit into their respective culture and become a contributing member of society throughout their adult life. Social play can be the first building block to achieving this, as it teaches kids to work in groups, often with a shared goal in mind. (Source)

38. Gives rise to leadership qualities

Too much adult interference in child-led play will ultimately lead to the children deferring to the adult. However, when left to their own devices, kids will assume the responsibility of teaching each other, handling conflicts and ensuring fairness among the group. (Source / Source)

39. Builds lasting bonds with parents

Playing is a great way for us parents to get to know our kids. They will happily show us their interests, quirks, and strengths when we join them in their fantasy world. It is a great way for us to foster a bond built on joy and engagement. (Source)

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Academic performance

40. Boosts academic skills

Engaging in social play allows kids the opportunity to learn from their more advanced peers. These positive group interactions can lead to children who are more likely to succeed in academics. Physical play, meanwhile, may increase cognitive function, speed up neurocognitive processing, and ultimately lead to a better academic performance. (Source)

41. Prepares for the transition to kindergarten

When young children play with their peers, it sets them up to have a more comfortable landing when they enter the classroom. As young as kindergarten, social abilities and behavior are among the key skills considered by professionals who are determining a child’s readiness to enter school. Worth noting is that kids who have a smooth transition into kindergarten tend to do better in future academics. (Source)

42. Helps with adjustment to a school setting

When your child enters school with proper social, behavioral, and cognitive development, something that child-led play is proven to provide, they will be better prepared to handle the anxieties that can accompany academic transitions. This can mean that their new routine away from home is a source of pleasure instead of fear. (Source / Source)

43. Develops a sense of numbers

Numbers are ever present and important in academics, and free play can help your child understand them. Manipulating blocks, for example, can create a good foundation for numerical and concept comprehension. (Source / Source)

Over-scheduled and over-entertained Kids

Even with psychologists and researchers pointing out the many benefits of free play, it still remains an afterthought in the lives of many children. This isn’t necessarily something that has been done on purpose; I think it’s safe to say most parents aren’t setting out to deprive their kiddos the chance of social and cognitive growth or, for that matter, fun. It’s just that the idea of future success tends to center around academics, structured arts education classes, and athletics.

It’s easy for programs that encourage free play, like recess, to be considered more superfluous than beneficial. Add in the fact that as technology has evolved, so too has the amount of time we all spend engaging in the passive entertainment that screen time provides, and we are now finding that:

  • Toddlers under two spend about 42 minutes on screen media daily;
  • Children between ages two and four spend approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes on screen media per day;
  • Five to eight-year-olds will spend almost three hours a day on screen media;
  • In America, schools that have recess only allow an average of about 27 minutes per day;
  • By sixth grade, 65.1% of American students will NOT participate in recess programs;
  • 45.6% of teachers and other school staff members are NOT prohibited from retracting recess as punishment
  • 62% of child-participants of a study relating to physical activity reported that they would like to play outside more.

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How to encourage and make space for free play

While the stats on childhood play and the amount of time our young ones spend in front of a screen can seem a bit gloomy, there is no need to despair! The great thing about unstructured playtime is that it can be done anywhere and anytime, your child can play solo or with a group, and you can participate or simply supervise from afar.

But with a tightly packed schedule, how can you carve out the time for your kiddo to just play? Try:

  • Trading in some or all of your child’s daily screen time for playtime;
  • Cutting back on extracurricular activities, e.g., limiting your child to one sports team per season;
  • Advocating for longer recess/break periods in your child’s school at school board meetings

Once you have made time, what do you do if your child seems to need a bit of encouragement to get the literal or figurative ball rolling? No worries, playtime comes pretty naturally to kids, but remember to:

  • Not correct or attempt to change the ‘rules’ of your kiddo’s games;
  • Be accepting and nonjudgmental of your child’s games;
  • Lead by example and don’t be afraid to get silly;
  • Provide toys or equipment relevant to the interests of your child;
  • Never try to take control or judge the direction of how (or with what) your child is playing (Source / Source)

Wrapping up

The science is clear; children who engage in free play activities are going to experience a myriad of benefits, ranging improved physicality and self-affirmation, all the way up to cognitive and neurological development. As a parent, you will also reap the benefits of an improved relationship with and a better understanding of your child.

Besides, research and experts aside, fun for the sake of fun is a lesson that we could all be better-served learning. So let’s make a way to bring a little more play into the world.

2 Comments

  1. john miles December 10, 2018
    • Neve Spicer December 11, 2018

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