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  • Writer's pictureDr. V.S. Gayathri

The Importance of Child-Led Free Play!

Updated: Jul 1, 2022

Playtime during the growing years of a child is very important and crucial for their overall development of both the body and mind. Playtime can be various types. For example, when the child plays on his/her own, when you engage in playing with them or assist them in some way, or when they are continuously learning something through experiential playtime.

Over the years, many of us have come to believe that even playtime should also be very constructive and organized. However, experts think otherwise. Also, now-a-days, we have seen how kids are getting addicted to digital mediums and neglecting playtime.

Peter Gray, PhD, professor of psychology at Boston College, in the American Journal of Play has written in detail in his article on how the lack of play affects emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self-control.

So, it is important as parents and educators, we encourage active playtime and free play as well which will help in their development and growth.

Let us understand what is free play and why it is beneficial.

What is free play?

Free play is nothing but plat time which is led by the child. Hence, it is also referred to as ‘child-led free play’. Adults might be involved in it, but it is completely driven by the child and not directed by the adult. Also, it might be unstructured and disorganized. Free play is easiest to achieve with two or more children.

Self-regulation skills are foundational to successful participation in society, and predict a suite of positive outcomes throughout life. It has long been asserted that free (i.e., unstructured) play is important for the development of self-regulation. In a study, it was found that the more time children spent in unstructured quiet play in the toddler and preschool years, the better their self-regulation abilities at ages 4 to 5 and 6 to 7 years. This study also provides early support for parenting programs designed to increase opportunities for children to spend time in unstructured, free play in their early years.

In free play, the child focusses on their own area of interest, make their own rules and communicate in their chosen way. Hence, the concept of choice of very important here. They use their imaginations and create their own structures. They may mimic or try out adult roles that they have observed. Free play is a great way for children to begin to understand the world around them and it is hugely beneficial.

Example of free play

Free play can be any kind of unstructured activity that encourages children to use their imagination, such as playing with blocks, dolls, toy cars, and anything they like. It doesn’t mostly include playing with most electronic toys.

A group of kids playing soccer in the backyard together (compared to playing on a team with a coach) can be a good example of free play time. This also helps them to meet their daily physical activity requirements.

Some more examples of free play can be:

  • Drawing, colouring, painting, cutting, and gluing with art supplies

  • Playing make-believe and dress-up

  • Playing on playground equipment, climbing, swinging, running around

  • Reading and looking at books they enjoy, not as part of homework or study

What are the benefits of free play?

In a special report on play, the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) has mentioned about

  • It allows kids to use their creativity and develop their imagination and other strengths

  • It encourages them to interact with and explore the world around them, and in the process learn naturally

  • It helps children adjust to school at an early age and enhance their learning readiness, learning behaviour, and problem-solving skills

  • It helps them to learn and practice self-regulation which we have also stated earlier

  • It helps a child to build decision-making skills

  • It teaches them to work in groups so they learn to share and resolve conflicts. This in turn improves their interpersonal skills from an early age.

How to encourage free play?

Though free play is done independently by a child, parents can always support and encourage their children in having a fun, playful learning experience.

  • Make sure your child has a safe space to play in. When playing freely, children should have the chance to explore and do most things on their own to build confidence and independence. Hence, it is important to give them has a safe environment to do this in.

  • Listen to your child. Interact and ask your child, “What do you want to do today?” Based on their response, you can help create an environment where they can explore their interest. For example, if they want to build a house, you can give support by providing materials and a safe space to work. Think about the materials your child would need and see what is available in the house to be reused. For example, if your child wants to do a puzzle and you don’t have one at home, use a picture or a calendar and cut it into pieces for them to put together. Be as creative as possible.

  • Give some clues and prompts along the way. When your child faces a problem, you can help guide them toward a solution by asking “What do you want to do? How can we solve this problem?” You can give some clues or support to where the child to think for themselves.

  • Make it a bonding activity. You can also get engaged in the play. If your child wants to play with you while you are busy working, try talking with them about something they can do on their own, and then when they are done you can look over it together. You can help engage your child in different activities where they can play independently.

  • Don’t worry about mess. Don’t stop them, especially younger ones if they are making a bit of mess. In this way, they learn so know what they should do and what they shouldn’t. Do not scold or blame them. Rather have a conversation later and make them understand rather than stopping them at the beginning.


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