The Importance of Free Play

Unstructured and Unscheduled Play Time

Toddler drawing on sidewalk with chalk
Alex Vlassov

Is your child getting her recommended daily amount of free play time? There are many benefits for simple, unstructured play. These are times when she uses her imagination or enjoys physical activity rather than being coached on a team or watching electronic entertainment.

Overscheduled Kids

With all of the structured activities and the strictly scheduled lives that many kids have these days, some are left without any real time to just play, which is considered a birthright by many experts.

Structured activities have replaced some of the free play time. If you are a proverbial soccer parent driving your kids from place to place constantly, they may be overscheduled.

Other factors that have led to a decrease in free play time include an emphasis on academic preparation, electronic media replacing playtime, less time spent playing outdoors, perceived risk of play environments, and limited access to outdoor play spaces.

At the end of the day and once they finish their homework, have your kids had any time to themselves to just play with friends in the neighborhood or do other things they want? If not, you might need to dial back their schedule and add in some free play time.

The Importance of Free Play

Why is it so important to let kids play? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics' Clinical Report, in addition to being important to healthy brain development, the benefits of free play include:

  • Allows kids to use their creativity and develop their imagination, dexterity, and other strengths.
  • Encourages kids to interact with the world around them.
  • Helps kids conquer their fears and build their confidence.
  • Teaches kids to work in groups so they learn to share and resolve conflicts.
  • Helps kids practice decision-making skills.
  • It is fun.
  • Physical activity helps build active, healthy bodies and helps prevent obesity.
  • Helps kids develop social and emotional ties, both within the family and with other children.

It is important to note that this kind of play is meant to be unstructured, child-driven play. It is not the kind of play time that is totally controlled by adults and doesn't include passive play, such as sitting in front of a video game, computer, or TV.

Keep in mind that just because free play isn't controlled by adults doesn't mean that you shouldn't supervise your kids while they are playing, especially if they are playing outside.

Examples of Free Play

True free play is any kind of unstructured activity that encourages your child to use his imagination, such as playing with blocks, dolls, and toy cars. It wouldn't include playing with most electronic toys.

A group of kids playing soccer in the backyard together, versus only playing on a team with a coach, would be another good example of free play time. This type of active free play is also a good way to help your kids meet their daily physical activity requirements.

More examples of free play include:

  • Playing on playground equipment, climbing, swinging, running around.
  • Drawing, coloring, painting, cutting, and gluing with art supplies.
  • Playing make-believe and dress-up
  • Reading and looking at books they enjoy, not as part of homework or study

What To Know About Free Play

If you are simply running from activity to activity and your kids are overscheduled, consider cutting back a little and adding in some free play.

Sources:

Milteer RM, Ginsburg KR, Mulligan DA. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bond: Focus on Children in Poverty. Pediatrics. 2011;129(1). doi:10.1542/peds.2011-2953.

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