Free Play is Essential for Children’s Development

Young boy playing with dinosaur toys

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” – Fred Rogers

Free play is essential for a child’s healthy physical, social, cognitive and creative development! But what does “free play” really mean, anyway?

Free play is unstructured, child-initiated and spontaneous – preferably with minimal or, with children who can be trusted, no supervision. It can be an individual child playing with some blocks or a group of children working out a game to play together. Other examples include, playing dress up, acting out a story, creating artwork, playing on equipment in the park or just running around, playing games with neighborhood children such as kick ball, hide and seek or a made up game.

Free play does not include the use of technology (TV, video games, computers, etc.) or tasks provided by adults (for example, giving children some art materials and instructions to “make something” for Grandma).

Some of the skills children practice and benefits of free play include:

  • Improves body awareness – kids learn how their bodies move; develop and improve motor skills
  • Increases problem solving skills and helps children learn about natural consequences
  • Builds confidence and independence
  • Encourages investigating, experimenting
  • Improves emotional regulation
  • Can increase attention and awareness

If your child is too young for unsupervised play, make sure the area is safe for them and maybe try to watch through a doorway or sit off to the side and allow them the chance to explore on their own.

Tips for Incorporating Free Play into Your Family Routine

Be intentional about incorporating unstructured playtime into your family routine.

This may sound counterintuitive, but for many families unstructured or free play may not happen if it’s not planned into your schedule.

Make friends with other parents who also value play.

Talk with your parent friends about why play is important to you and your family. Don’t forget to tell them about the benefits you have seen in your own children. Set up a play date, sit back and let the kids play!

Ask your child about their adventures.

Talking with your child about their adventures in play can help develop language skills, but showing interest also lets your child know that you care about them and their experiences. Connecting on this level with your child can improve your relationship with them and increase trust!

Set limits on technology!

Play increases creativity and attention span while technology decreases patience and can make some children more impulsive.

Don’t overschedule children.

Too many scheduled activities can crowd out free play opportunities. It can be very beneficial for parents to say “no” to too many scheduled activities!

Allow children to figure out their own solution to the challenges they encounter before intervening.

Giving children time to work out problems on their own builds confidence and problem solving skills.

Need help for your child or teen? Pine Rest provides compassionate, world-class treatment at all care levels for kids.

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