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.
In this article:
Benefits of free play [Infographic]
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:
Character and personality
1. Boosts confidence and self-esteem
Free play involves every part of a child’s being; mind, body, and soul. Through this playstyle, kids are able to naturally explore their physicality as well as engage in independent learning.
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-stake 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 their play are essential for the cognitive development 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, 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.
5. Reduces childhood stress and anxiety
Research suggests that over-protection from exposure to risk-taking activities can actually increase a child’s anxiety all the way up to adulthood.
Because free play inherently encourages a level of risk-taking with relatively low stakes, it’s the perfect opportunity for children to get these experiences under their belts.
6. Increases empathy
Through imaginary play, children can put themselves into 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, game by 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 safely express, both to their parents and to themselves, what they are feeling.
Even if their vocabulary hasn’t quite reached the level needed to articulate their fears, excitement, or opinions, the form 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, claiming 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 honing their skills in problem-solving, communicating their needs, or discovering that those blocks are made for something more than just 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 want our kids to learn how to identify situations that are genuinely threatening, whether on the playground or in their future adult lives. Experts believe that this ability starts at an early age, 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, we should encourage our kids to stretch their independence and confidently explore their world, with free play being an excellent way to do so. (Source)
13. Reduces or conquers fears
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 while 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
Roleplay can provide children the freedom 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 is tricky, if not impossible, no matter how hard they push.
While this example seems a little obvious, it demonstrates how free play can teach our kids that, sometimes, things are just the way they are and that they may need to change their strategy to solve a problem, despite their personal 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.
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.
19. Increases creativity
Compared to activities that were not initiated by children, child-led play, specifically social-fantasy play, has been shown to support the creative imaginations of youngsters.
20. Nurtures imagination
It could be argued 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)
21. Supports learning readiness
Studies have demonstrated a positive link between 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 well 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 problem-solving abilities when allowed to play games and complete puzzles.
23. Promotes free and flexible thinking
Free play strips away all rules, expectations, and time frames, encouraging kids to think for themselves. Play can be quiet and solitary or loud and social; a child enjoying creative play assumes total control over the type of games they play.
24. Enhances language development
When a child participates in social play, they’ll find themselves both listening to and mimicking the way language is used by others.
25. Gives rise to concepts of size, shape, and texture
A child will struggle to stack large blocks on top of a very tiny block or fit a square peg into a round hole. These are ways that, through interacting with the objects around them, children will internalize 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, namely those of concentration and of focusing on their own needs. Self-directed play can enhance a child’s ability to concentrate and should, therefore, be encouraged. (Source / Source)
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 full potential.
Games involving block-stacking or arts and crafts activities can encourage the development of fine motor abilities and finger control, both of which 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 experience 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.
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, normally, unacceptable, in ways that are socially acceptable.
When engaging in group play, kids are learning to better communicate and behave in a manner that encourages interaction, bringing a natural sense of 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 from an early age. It’s 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, work on their own communication skills, and also learn to see things from different perspectives while they play.
In fact, by engaging in peer play prior to entering kindergarten, children can develop a robust framework for their transition into school.
Entering the world of academics will, of course, involve having to process both positive and negative feedback from peers and adults alike, so arriving with this skill set will be a huge plus. (Source)
34. Trains children how to negotiate and resolve conflicts
Free play presents the potential for conflict, something kids need to experience in order to learn how to handle it in a positive way.
While mastering the ability to negotiate with their peers, they may gradually learn for themselves the age-old art of ‘give and take’. (Source)
35. Encourages self-advocacy
Standing up for oneself is a skill every human being needs to hone in their youth in order to become healthy adults.
Free play not only teaches our kids the arts of 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, providing youngsters with a sense of belonging. (Source)
37. Teaches children how to socialize
We’d like our kids to fit confidently into their respective cultures and become contributing members 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 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’ll 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)
40. Boosts academic skills
Engaging in social play gives kids the chance to learn from their more advanced peers. These positive group interactions can lead to children becoming more likely to succeed in academics.
Physical play, meanwhile, can increase cognitive function, speed up neurocognitive processing, and ultimately lead to better academic performance. (Source)
41. Prepares for the transition to kindergarten
The more young children play with their peers, the more it prepares them for a comfortable landing when they enter the classroom.
As early as kindergarten, social abilities and behavior are considered key skills by professionals who determine a child’s readiness to enter school.
Worth noting is that kids who have a smooth transition into kindergarten tend to perform better in future academics. (Source)
42. Helps with adjustment to a school setting
When your child enters school with healthy social, behavioral, and cognitive development, something that child-led play is acknowledged to provide, they’ll be better prepared to handle the anxieties that accompany the academic transition.
43. Develops a sense of numbers
Numbers are ever-present and important in academics, and free play helps 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’s happening on purpose; I think it’s safe to say most parents don’t mean to deprive their kiddos of social and cognitive growth or, for that matter, fun.
They just seem to believe their child’s future success centers 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 with the passive entertainment that screen time provides; so we now find 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.
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’s 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 personally 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’ve made time, what do you do if your child needs some encouragement to get the ball rolling? No worries, playtime comes pretty naturally to kids, just 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)
The science is clear; children who engage in free play activities are going to experience a myriad of benefits, ranging from improved physicality and self-affirmation, all the way up to cognitive and neurological development.
As a parent, you’ll 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 we could all be better-served learning. So let’s find a way to bring a little more play into the world!