“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning, but to children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” (Fred Rogers)
Free play is something that we prioritise for our children, and we find very important. We find it re-centres our three, and allows them to “just be”. Children these days have a lot of structure in their lives. There is structure during the school day, there are after school activities, and there are a lot of screens to be used. Add that in together with an increased reluctance to allow our children to take risks and decreased time for unrestricted outdoor play , free play is in danger of becoming a lost activity for our children. This post discusses what free play is, why it is important, and how we can help as parents, or people looking after children, to provide opportunities for it to happen.
What Is Free Play?
Free play is totally unstructured and a fully child initiated form of play. This child led experience is a spontaneous activity born out of an interest, curiosity, or enthusiasm about something they want to pursue further. Their imaginations take them wherever they want to go, with lots of motivation and learning along the way. It is a simple form of play that does not require complicated gadgets or electronic toys, just whatever is to hand, whether that be a stick or a doll.
Why Do Children Need Free Play?
- Free play leads to increased enthusiasm and motivation as they are following their own interests and curiosity, rather than something predetermined by an adult.
- It is a very important learning method through self discovery.
- It decreases anxiety and stress: Fight or flight pathways are activated during play (same pathways that are activated by stress), so they get exposed to stress but in a positive way. This in turn makes them less responsive to stress and they can regulate it more effectively.
- It helps develop social and emotional connections
- It increases a child’s resilience.
- Teaches the child good negotiation skills if the play involves other children.
- Following on from the negotiation skills, it can then teach them to compromise and adapt.
- It uses their imaginations and leads to increased creativity.
- Due to using their own initiative, it helps improve problem solving skills.
- It increases their confidence as they engage in new experiences.
How Can We Provide Free Play Opportunities?
- Fancy dress boxes: You needn’t spend a fortune on outfits. Mine have collected a few over the years, but a lot of their outfits are old bridesmaid dresses, dance costumes of mine, or old hats, scarves, and shoes. They love dressing up and then making up a scenario to go with it.
- Have less toys with electronic functions, or predetermined functions, but instead allow more for the child’s imagination to take over.
- Less parental intervention or suggestions, less coached activities, and less screen time.
- Provide protected time for free play to actually happen. If it has been a hectic week with commitments, scale down the scheduled activities and let them play.
- Take them to outdoor spaces, and then allow them time to have free play in that environment. For example, on beaches or in woods. Sit and watch the play take over when you give them the time. If you don’t walk as far that day in the woods because a “campfire” needs to be made or a den built, or a river-let of water “fished” in, come back another day. They will have learnt more from having the time to play rather than being moved on because a trail needed to be walked.
- If you are taking a circular walk, allow more time than needed. This then allows them time to investigate and play with chunks of ice, or admire a ladybird.
- At home, leave craft supplies out, and see where their creativity leads them into with what is left out.
- At play parks allow them to determine how to use the equipment. If the game involves walking up the slide (as long as no one wants to come down) it isn’t harming anyone. As adults we think we know how equipment should be used, but stand back and let the professionals show you 🙂
- Allow for boredom…..don’t fill it in!
I hope you have enjoyed finding out about the benefits of free play and ways in which we as the grown ups can make this happen. There are benefits for us as well…..life is slower. There are less scheduled commitments, we feel less like a taxi driver, pulled in multiple directions, and there is less stress in our daily living due to being less busy 🙂 It is a win for everyone!