How to Encourage Free Play

Unstructured play is a serious brain booster for growing minds. Try these genius ideas and watch your kids soar.

By Patty Onderko




No one’s saying you’re not fun. Your monkey impression is hilarious. Your UNO skills are unrivaled. And you’re a sidewalk-chalk virtuoso. But sometimes, Mom and Dad, you just need to leave playtime to the kids. While parent-child play is crucial to a child’s development — it’s been shown time and again to enhance their vocabulary, school performance, and self-esteem — playing on their own is equally important.

Free, unstructured play happens when your child isn’t following any rules or guidelines, like when he’s busy building forts, pretending to be a superhero, or fingerpainting. It cultivates independence, imagination, creativity, and problem-solving skills, says Kenneth R. Ginsburg, M.D., a pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of a special report on play from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Free play also works wonders on stress. “Kids deal with their anxiety and fears through free play. It’s their natural means of building resiliency.” Neuroscientists say that play is fundamental to every kind of learning, and it even physically shapes the brain. The more playful an animal is, scientists point out, the bigger its brain is.

Bring Back Free Play! 

Sadly, this type of play has been on the decline since the 1950s, due in part to changing ideas on education and growing fears about letting kids be unsupervised. Though more parents are recognizing the importance of free play, they’re still struggling to let it happen naturally. “Scheduling free play kind of defeats the purpose,” says Dr. Ginsburg.

“It shouldn’t be another thing to add to your to-do list and feel guilty about.” Fortunately, with a little know-how, you can make free play an organic and exciting part of your child’s world. Here’s how:

1. Praise her play. Chances are that your child already engages in some amount of free play every day. Encourage more of it by regularly telling your little one what a great job she’s doing. “I’m so impressed that you built that tower all by yourself!” or “What a great game you invented!” Resist the urge to give suggestions like “Here, why don’t you use a towel instead of that sheet as a cape?” Your kid’s play is perfect just the way it is.

2. Offer open-ended toys.  “The simplest toys allow for the highest creativity,” says Dr. Ginsburg. Playthings such as blocks, dolls, and balls (see “Let ’Em Loose!”) that can be used in more than one way encourage imagination better than things like coloring books or board games, which have specific rules to follow.

3. Cut back on extracurriculars. Stick to one sport or kiddie class per season, recommends Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College who specializes in children’s play. You may think you’re doing your child a favor by signing her up for Spanish classes, baseball, and art all at the same time, but having an organized activity every afternoon will really zap her energy for any free play. In fact, research shows that kids whose time is over-organized are more likely to become anxious and depressed.

4. Invite the neighbors. Encourage your kids to play in your front yard. “We’ve become a backyard society,” Gray says, and that can prevent kids from having the kind of spontaneous play with neighborhood friends that you probably remember from your own childhood. 

In his book, Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play, Mike Lanza encourages parents to set their playground equipment in their front yard and then put up a “Please Trespass” sign that welcomes other kids to join in on the fun. Lanza put a picnic table on his own front lawn, where his family now eats dinner while chatting with neighbors. One huge advantage to neighborhood play is that kids end up hanging out with pals of different ages. “Mixed-age play is an incredible learning opportunity,” says Gray. “The big kids learn to nurture and look out for the little ones, and the small kids have to learn to keep up.” As a group, they have to devise creative games that include everyone.

If you’re nervous about your child’s safety, it may help to keep in mind that crime is down across the board in the United States. “Our streets and neighborhoods are safer now than back when we were playing block-wide games of hide-and-seek,” says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry. Get to know your neighbors, create a network of parents that look out for each other’s kids, and teach your child to be smart about stranger danger.

5. Set screen limits. Allow TV and computer time sparingly so that your child doesn’t start to rely on a screen whenever he’s slightly bored. “Media is immediately engaging,” says Dr. Gins- burg. Play, on the other hand, isn’t as instantly immersive. Sometimes, it even takes work! But it’s also more rewarding. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours of screen time per day.

6. Let him get bored. “In order for kids to play freely, they need time to get bored and then time to overcome that boredom,” explains Gray. Next time your child complains that there’s nothing to do, resist offering suggestions for how she might entertain herself. Coming up with an idea for what to do is how free play begins.

7. Be realistic. Don’t expect your kid to play alone for hours while you work or do the laundry. He’s not going to morph into Huckleberry Finn overnight. “Free play takes a while to cultivate, especially if your child is used to having you as a constant playmate,” says Dr. Ginsburg. Depending on your child’s age and temperament, successful free play could be measured in just 15-minute increments. As he gets older, and more used to having to entertain himself, he’ll be able to have longer, Huck-worthy play sessions.

8. Teach by example. Do you have free-play activities of your own? If not, how can you expect your child to? Don’t feel guilty about the time you take to yourself to work out, paint, read, garden, or go for a walk. You’re teaching your child an important lesson: Play is a priority, no matter how old you are!

Imaginative Play Ideas

1: Doodle on the driveway with sidewalk chalk.
2: Invent a make-believe game where toy cars are the main characters.
3: Have them erect forts using old sheets and the couch.
4: Build towers, rockets, boats, and more with cardboard boxes. 

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