Child playing with dinosaurs

The Importance of Free Play for Children

What is the role of play in children’s lives and why would we want to allow lots of time for it?

Free play is often seen as unimportant and without purpose. In our modern society, children start academic instruction early and their time is largely filled with structured activities. Children are not getting enough free play and this decline in free play over the past few decades has contributed to a rise in child mental health issues.

Free play is any kind of unstructured activity that is child has initiated such as building forts, pretending to be a superhero, or exploring new spaces.

Some benefits of free play:

  • Research shows that the amount of unstructured child led play compared to direct instruction is correlated with better language development.
  • Play activates the entire prefrontal cortex- an area of the brain that plays a vital role in regulating emotions, attention, and higher order learning.
  • Research has shown that children who engage in unstructured free play tend to perform better in school, as it develops their cognitive and problem-solving skills.
  • Child led play with a caregiver leads to increased self-confidence, strengthened parent-child bond, increased cooperation, and reduced behavior problems.

9 Ideas to help encourage free play in your child:

1. Keep toys to a minimum. Children who have less toys immerse themselves more deeply into play and have longer attention spans.

2. Limit the amount of organized activities. Provide more open-ended materials such as loose parts. Examples of loose parts include natural materials such as sticks, logs, stone, shells, pinecones, or man-made materials such as yarn, fabric, crates, and buckets. These materials allow limitless possibilities and promote curiosity and exploration, which helps children develop their cognitive abilities and expand their knowledge and enhance critical thinking skills.

3. Encourage physical play such as climbing, jumping, running, wrestling, or playing tag. What looks like fooling around allows children to learn empathy, cooperation, impulse control, and leadership skills.

4. Let your child be bored. Boredom is a gift that fosters your child’s innate creativity. When your child is bored and decides to turn a cardboard box and a stick into a rocket ship, they are developing flexibility, frustration tolerance, and emotional regulation skills.

5. Focus on the process not the final product. Closed ended crafts can help to develop fine motor skills but process-focused art (that has no determined outcome) allows children to express themselves freely.

6. Encourage outdoor play for at least an hour a day. Children can explore, search for bugs, or plant a garden. Have you considered making a mud kitchen? Allow your child to get messy.

7. Engage in ten minutes of special playtime with your child. Special playtime involves getting down on the child’s level, making eye contact, allowing the child to choose the activity and following their lead without distractions. Limit questions and track what they are doing (e.g., that blue one is going around and around.”)

8. Turn your neighborhood into a space for play. Connect with local families that support free play. Invite your child’s friends or meet at the local playground.

9. Simply allowing “kids to be kids” is the key to healthy development. Unstructured play can be free and simple. Some of the most important interactions for brain development are already occurring naturally in families such as talking, singing, laughing, or simply following your child’s lead as they play.

Happy playing!

Agnes Olszewska | Registered Psychologist and Registered Play Therapist | J Gordon Psychology Group | Edmonton, AB
Written by Agnes Olszewska
Registered Psychologist and Play Therapist
J. Gordon Psychology Group