Free Play – Children Need It To Thrive

“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.  

An impromptu tea party for a dog who can’t escape her play with his broken leg 🙂

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.

While I cook our sunrise breakfast, the children are “catching fish” for theirs, with a spontaneous game of “fishermen”. No toys, just good old sticks

Why Do Children Need Free Play?

  1. Free play leads to increased enthusiasm and motivation as they are following their own interests and curiosity, rather than something predetermined by an adult.
  2. It is a very important learning method through self discovery.

    They decided to build a den on hike one day while I cooked lunch

  3. 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.
  4. It helps develop social and emotional connections

    Collecting the dead roses I was cutting and the fallen petals, led to an important game of potion making here

  5. It increases a child’s resilience.
  6. Teaches the child good negotiation skills if the play involves other children.

    Being allowed to play on a beach in winter led to experimenting with dam building and redirecting water

  7. Following on from the negotiation skills, it can then teach them to compromise and adapt.
  8. It uses their imaginations and leads to increased creativity.

    They have built a pretend fire in the garden to toast marshmallows on

  9. Due to using their own initiative, it helps improve problem solving skills.
  10. It increases their confidence as they engage in new experiences.

    Looking for crabs on the beach


How Can We Provide Free Play Opportunities?

  1. 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.
  2. Have less toys with electronic functions, or predetermined functions, but instead allow more for the child’s imagination to take over.

    Crushing chalk and mixing with water was the play going on here, which started originally as drawing with the outdoor chalk

  3. Less parental intervention or suggestions, less coached activities, and less screen time.
  4. 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.

    They made their own see-saw

  5. 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.
  6. 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.

    Investigating the ice on a hike

  7. At home, leave craft supplies out, and see where their creativity leads them into with what is left out.
  8. 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 🙂
  9. Allow for boredom…..don’t fill it in!

Making a planet for their dinosaurs

When we take them to the library, we try not to make it rushed, allowing them time in there too.

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… 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!

Free Play - Children Need It To Thrive, Free play, play, unstructured play,



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  1. We often encourage free play with our son. He also reverts to it freely when we refuse to turn the TV on and it’s wonderful to watch his imagination at work. He’s never bored and always creates a game or story during this time.

    • My youngest has got to the point where he now wants to stay home based all day so he can play his games 🙂 If we are outdoors, they all revert to it fairly fast as well inventing some sort of scenario

  2. I couldn’t agree more – there is so much pressure that it is so important to make time for free play 🙂
    Helen recently posted…FAMILY: Kids Eat Free Over Easter at Giraffe World KitchenMy Profile

  3. We are big fans of free play here – it’s so important. I used to spend hours playing out with my friends, making up games, creating ‘perfume’ from flowers and water and ‘cooking’ with an old saucepan and whatever I foraged.

  4. Sofie

    Very important post. I think it gets even more important as the children gets older. I have a 15 and 12 year old, the pressure from school and other activities, and friends gets larger with age. I still try to let them just have free-play for hours on the weekend. My house is now famous for the house that does not allow screens, but the house where you can just play outdoors. The most important thing is to let the kids enjoy and love it when they are young, so it gets a habit to play outdoors.

    • Yes I totally agree, and mine are out there in all weathers 🙂 We too don’t do screens, and they don’t miss them or complain it is different. They also suck time away from the day. I’m hoping these habits all grow with them, my eldest is 10 and she’d much rather play or tuck into a book than watch TV

  5. I love to see my girls doing free play, they have great imaginations and have never said the words I’m bored!

  6. I love leaving mine to play by themselves, they always have the best time, even if they moan about being bored initially
    Kara recently posted…10 Fun Easter Activities to do with the Kids in Dorset and Hampshire 2018My Profile

  7. I love all these benefits of free play. Need to get my kids to free play more.

  8. This looks a great idea. They look like they are enjoying playing and also learning so much too 🙂

  9. I LOVE THIS! the little ones away from any tablets or PS4’s! Theyre getting their hand dirty, they’re being adventurous & they’re still having lots of fun! I know we’re in a different generation to the younger ones these days but they can still have fun without technology!

  10. completely agree, my kids have lots of free play and love dressing up and playing tea parties or super heros etc. They also love being out doors exploring too!
    Deborah Nicholas recently posted…Why Home Schooling Is Right For Us!My Profile

  11. Love this! My 17 month old has very few electronic toys. She finds the most random things fascinating, and i really hope that as she grows she doesn’t lose that imagination. I will remember this post.

    • Ah thankyou 🙂 The imagination of my three just keeps growing and I love the fact they are so creative with their ideas

  12. I completely agree, life is so much better in our house when the boys can get out and enjoy free play. I wish schools had more of it too.

  13. We always, always encourage free play. I completely agree that it’s so important and children need it to thrive. Whenever my daughter comes to me and says shes bored. I give her a few random things to play with (usually boxes or anything random from around the house) and she goes off to make up games with them. I love watching from the sidelines and seeing what new things she comes up with. x

  14. I love watching mine when we’re out exploring somewhere new. Their lovely games and curoristy comes alive

  15. When my sister was 5, she was very shy. She grew up watching videos on her tab and would rather stay inside than going out to play with other children. When we started schooling her, we let her explore and do what she wants. Free play stimulated her creativity and she became open with other children. That’s why i couldn’t agree with you more with this article. I hope other parents would let their children flourish with free play. It is also important to note your children’s school community.

    • Yes I totally agree, and a huge reason we moved to Sweden was for the school community’s ideas about how they should be playing, and be playing outdoors as well 🙂

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