Why is Free Play Critical to Your Child’s Development?

As adults with busy schedules, deadlines to meet and countless responsibilities, play can sometimes seem like a luxury we can’t afford. In today’s push to have our children excel, we can unwittingly project this attitude upon even them. We often transition our children from a very structured, adult- supervised school year supplemented with lessons and activities of all kinds, to an equally busy and often over-scheduled summer. Additionally, with increasing concern over the years for our children’s safety, we protect them more than ever from becoming too physical or straying too far, sometimes to the detriment of their ability to play with childish abandon.

Why free play is important
Whether summertime or part of the school year, it is critical to our children’s development that we allow them the time to play freely. Unscheduled, unsupervised free play is truly a gift we give them. It encourages social skill building, the development of cognitive abilities, emotional maturity, self- control, teamwork and physical health and fitness. It fosters creativity, flexibility in their thinking,decision-making and the ability to solve problems.

The lessons they learn through independent discovery, innovation, negotiation, risk-taking and being successful (or not) at novel tasks are life-building experiences that will serve them well into adulthood. When adults do all the directing and limit setting, we rob our children of the opportunities to learn from their own successes and failures.

In an article on free play in the Atlantic by Jessica Lahey, she discusses the importance of executive functioning. This is a term that includes the cognitive skills of organization, long-term planning, self-regulation, task initiation, and the ability to transition easily between multiple activities. In studies, executive functioning has been shown to be a powerful indicator of academic success and positive life outcomes. Children who engage in free play have many more opportunities for developing self-directed executive function than if they engage solely in structured, adult-directed activities.

How can you encourage more play in your busy children’s lives? Here are some suggestions of ways you can begin to build it back in:

Don’t over schedule
Whether your child is in school or on summer vacation, your child needs to play freely. Pick one or two favorite activities and spread them out throughout the year. This is particularly important if you have two, three, four or more children.

Invite friends over to play
Kids love to play together! This encourages the development of social skills, the ability to negotiate and self-regulation. Be sure to resist the urge to micromanage every interaction they have with each other. Letting them work it out within reason will go a long way to teaching them how to get along with others.

Two heads are better than one
Bring your child and a friend to the local playground, park or pool. By all means, enjoy this down time with your child, but don’t forget to slip off to a nearby bench and “busy” yourself with something while encouraging your child and friend to go play together. Building independence during play will serve your child well as he grows.

Don’t solve every problem
If your child insists on your help, give a little, but don’t give them the solution. For example, he wants to build a pirate ship. Give him a box and a sheet and say, “How could you use these?” If he still needs help you could say, “Should you get into the box or on top of the box when getting in the ship?” You want your child to begin taking the initiative, making the decisions, and solving the problems.

Shut it down
Turn off the TV, computer and iPad. You can even have a token to represent 15 minutes of electronic time and give your child 2 or 3 or however many is right for you, per day. They turn them in for TV or computer time and when the tokens are gone, they’re done. You can even incorporate electronic-free time zones meaning no electronics during certain times of the day, even with a token. A good rule of thumb is no electronics within at least an hour of bedtime.

Create a modified landfill
Put a variety of unique items in your backyard or playroom and watch the creativity bloom – i.e. large appliance boxes, an old tire, dress up clothes, a couple of lawn chairs, a big sheet or two, stuffed animals, a sand box, some squirt bottles filled with water, etc. Rotate new items in and old ones out every now and then to keep things novel and interesting.

Land the helicopter
Within reason, allow your child to fall, to fail and to struggle making an idea work. The skills they gain from failure, trying again, trying something else or even quitting without melting down are all critical life skills.

Finally, if you think your child is missing out on free play, don’t be afraid to make an adjustment and pull something scheduled out of the line-up. You will be amazed at what they could fill that time with and the skills they could be building in the process.

If you are concerned about your child’s development and want to know if he/she is where they should be, all us!  We want to help your child reach his/her maximum potential!