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The Benefits of Free Play

The Benefits of Free Play

Parents’ Choice Foundation President, Claire Green fills us in on the latest prescription for play.

By Claire Green

Free play is just what it sounds like. There are no prepackaged instructions, no game pieces, no specific goals – unless the children make it so.

Free play flings imaginations wide open, explores backyards, unleashes enthusiasm, and tests life lessons.   

Free play is what childhood is all about.

The benefits of free play fills conversations and scholarly work. Dr. Stuart Brown, National Institute for Play founder, author and professor David Elkind, PhD are among those who have charted their courses based on play’s role in child development. Journalist Jessica Lahey reports on play in the Atlantic. Peter Gray writes about it in books and articles. And they all agree: free play helps children develop socially, physically and cognitively. A visit to the National Museum of Play shows that many a career has been mapped by play.

But what does free play mean to a parent? What should it mean? What should it do?

First to know is that free play is vitally important to your child’s development. Free play is how children learn to negotiate roles (you’re the boss, I’m the customer) and develop and follow rules (count to 10 then jump on one foot, then). Free play is about problem solving (that didn’t work; let’s try this), scientific discovery (where did you find that bug?) and creative expression (I’m flying on my magic dragon to the kingdom of …).   

Next, don’t panic. You don’t need a PhD to raise playful, well balanced and inquisitive kids. Kids are born ready to play – and learn. You do need to know that free play is a valuable commodity.

Free play isn’t expensive It’s less about being equipped with specific playthings than it is about the providing the time, space and encouragement. Free play is a great gift.

Give up control, not supervision. Just because free play isn’t a scheduled and scripted activity doesn’t mean that you should abandon parenting. Keep an eye and an ear tuned in. After all, Moms do have eyes in the backs of their heads and extraordinary powers of hearing. Just give the kids a chance to work things out. Don’t jump in to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Free play is an enrichment activity. Ditch specific learning goals. Free play breeds all kinds of success. On the playground or the playroom floor, free play is child directed and that’s the best kind of learning.

And as many pediatricians say, play is powerful medicine.

So fill the prescription for free play – and call me in the morning.

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