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40 Reasons Why Free Play is Essential for Child Development

There is something special about watching a child at play. The whole world seems to be at their fingertips. Playing is an important part of childhood,… Trista - September 15, 2019

There is something special about watching a child at play. The whole world seems to be at their fingertips. Playing is an important part of childhood, and many experts stress the importance of free play as part of a young child’s development. Free play is considered the unstructured and voluntary activity that provides children the opportunity to use their imaginations while they explore the world around them.

While guided activity promotes a certain response, children can dictate what happens during free play. This spontaneous play activity allows them to experience things the way they see them, and it sparks the natural curiosity. There are several other reasons why children benefit from free play. Check out these 40 important facts about free play and how they could be beneficial.

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1. Free Play Lets Kids Be Kids

Free play is defined as unstructured and voluntary activity that a child chooses what he or she would like to do. It is spontaneous and creative. They get to decide what to do. Some examples of items used in free play include dolls, building blocks, molding clay, crayons and paper, and other kinds of toys.

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When children are allowed to dictate what and how they want to play, they are allowed to express their emotions. Children are encouraged to use their imagination in creative ways. Toys can only be used one way, whereas passive activities like playing video games on a tablet do not spark the same kind of creativity.

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2. Free Play Promotes Physical Development

While they are playing, the children are growing as active play is important for physical development. The Child Development Institute states that 75 percent of brain development occurs after birth, and the physical development is needed to connect nerve cells and the brain.

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Once these connections are developed, many skills are improved, such as fine motor skills, language, socialization, and personal awareness. Sports and other physical activities strengthen muscle control, coordination, and reflexes. The children are encouraged to push limits, try new things, and grow in the process.

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3. Free Play Can Begin At Any Age

It is never too early to learn through playing because there is no limited age to free play. Experts have indicated that infants have also benefited from play activities. This is especially true at the very start of life when they are surrounded by loving and supportive family members who are committed to their well being.

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By starting early, parents are nurturing a lifetime of learning for their infants. Some ideas for interactive infant play include games like peek-a-boo, talking and asking questions while waiting for a coo as a response and letting the infant track an object as you move it slowing from the baby’s eyesight. As your child grows, you can incorporate more complicated games in their free play.

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4. Important Indicators in Playtime Learning

When children play, there are several ways that parents and educators can see if young students are conducting in free play learning. For example, free play promotes choice and wonder. Children are showing that they are given choices by setting goals, sharing ideas, developing new plans, making rules, and deciding how long to play. They are also exploring, creating, pretending, and learning from trial and error.

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Perhaps one of the biggest indicators of playful learning is seeing the delight on the children’s faces. These kids are smiling, laughing, being silly, and are feeling at ease with their surroundings. How amazing it is to see their young minds work in ways that they truly enjoy.

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5. Free Play Promotes Intellectual Function

Executive function skills are also important as children grow and mature. These are important to have as they get older. Studies have found that free play builds content knowledge and creative thinking. When they are building blocks or drawing a picture, the children at play are also counting, classifying, and creating patterns.

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Other kinds of free play can strengthen other intellectual skills. For example, a dramatic play promotes storytelling in a sensible order and a richer vocabulary in the dialogue. These skills will become especially important as the children get older and are given more writing assignments in school.

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6. Recess Is Important

Children are mobile by nature, and unfortunately, many schools have altered their curriculum to cut recess and free play in exchange for more classroom time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2017 that only eight states in the US have policies requiring daily recess in schools.

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A growing body of research, however, suggests that students are better able to absorb their lessons if they are allowed to free play. An elementary school in Fort Worth, Texas, has expanded its recess time with additional 15-minute breaks throughout the school day. The breaks are built around having unstructured time on the playground. Advocates say the extra recess time not only breaks up the day, but it allows the young pupils to apply what is taught in the classroom.

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7. Free Play Promotes A Healthier Lifestyle

More active children are less likely to develop health problems like obesity. Adding a physical activity and eating healthy food each day is especially important for young children and teens. The Department of Health and Human Services say that children from age six years old to adolescence should receive at least an hour of physical activity each day.

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Free play provides several healthful benefits, including the opportunity to keep their hearts and lungs strong and healthy. Children who engage in exercise are more flexible, develop strong bones, keep a healthy body weight, and lower the risk of serious diseases and health problems. Exercise also improves mood and self-esteem.

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8. Free Play Deters Sedentary Behavior

With free play, children are less likely to develop sedentary behavior habits. Sedentary behavior means the kids are spending time doing very little physical activity, such as watching television, playing video games, or sitting in front of the computer. Time spent in front of screens should be limited, especially for young children.

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The World Health Organization has issued guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behavior for children who are younger than five years old. Children ages 2 to 4 years old are advised to have no more than one hour of sedentary screen time each day. Experts also say Infants should also receive no more than one hour of restrained time in a high chair or sitting device.

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9. Free Play Allows Children to be Independent

In addition to promoting a more active lifestyle, free play allows children to become more independent. Building a child’s independence is an essential part of child development. The self-reliance helps them realize that they have control over their own lives. Without it, they may be more prone to react in anger and resistance when they are challenged.

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A September 2018 NPR highlighted the Let Grow Initiative, which reaches out to elementary schools across the country and allows participating kids to decide to do something that they had never done before. The homework assignments only had one requirement: no adult direction, just free and child-led play. The play clubs have led to positive effects in the classroom, and the children are more self-assured and confident as a result.

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10. It Can be a Big Confidence Booster

With the newfound confidence built through free play, many children have found that self-importance and that they are worthy of time. By choosing the activity, the child can feel valuable and accomplished. What they say matters, and that can be a big step toward their self-esteem.

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Children who are more confident in themselves are more likely to try new things. They are also more likely to put forth their best effort in all the tasks that they set out to do. Building confidence in students has been known to prevent student dropout rates and encourage attending college. Confidence also ensures that they will maintain their love for learning while they achieve their dreams.

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11. Free Play Can Help Kids Diagnosed with ADD and ADHD

Exercise and free play have been determined to be one of the best natural ways to help children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). The physical activity helps raise the dopamine and norepinephrine baseline levels in the brain. The physical activity should be started at a young age in hopes of managing the symptoms and influencing the child’s personal development.

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Not every child who has ADD or ADHD is exactly alike. It is important to find the right activity for each child’s unique set of symptoms. Once this free play activity is established, parents can help promote happiness and self-confidence, along with avoiding a meltdown. Many experts have suggested activities like dancing, aerobic exercises for coordination, and martial arts as part of their treatment plans.

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12. Children Become Leaders in Their Own Playing

Free play allows children to become the stewarts in their own learning. Pretending often mimics how they see the world around them. The drawing of a tree, playing with dolls and building a tower out of blocks become realistic portrayals of their imaginations.

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A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states that a balanced approach to learning with free play helps pre-kindergarten students process the world at their own pace. While they may not be able to share feelings and thoughts at length, children can use playtime as a way to process complex emotions.

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13. It Encourages Childhood Joy

It is no secret that children enjoy playing because they are having fun. Studies have shown that when teachers and parents incorporate activities that are considered fun, the students are more likely to get involved and participate because the process is more enjoyable and memorable. It is something that they want to do.

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During this free playtime, children can create good memories. A study published in the American Psychological Association in 2018 found that people who have fond memories of childhood tend to have better health, less depression, and fewer chronic illnesses as they became older. Good memories like those in free play had a positive effect on health and well-being.

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14. Free Play Can be Used to Incorporate Life Survival Skills

In addition to helping the children learn motor skills and confidence boosters, children can also learn several tactics that can prove to be beneficial as they grow older. The survival skills can be dressed up in a way where it seems like a game, but the most important lessons can be successful takeaways in other areas as well.

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Some examples of developing these crucial survival skills include “The Lights Out Game,” where the lights are turned off, and children and parents pretend the electricity is out and go over what to do in a power outage drill. Flashlight games, reading by firelight, sleeping in sleeping bags and other tactics can help ease children’s minds during a storm.

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15. Free Play Helps Children Overcome Fears

Playtime can assist children in learning about themselves, and the confidence gained through free play, kids can overcome their fears. Many common fears, like socializing with other peers, can be easily alleviated when children are used to playing with others. It teaches teamwork so children can be more comfortable with who they are as individuals.

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Because social interaction is how children learn to cooperate with others, free play can act as a safe place for children to deal with conflict. Sharing, taking turns, and following and giving instructions are all learned and practiced during free play.

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16. Pretending with Free Play Starts Observations

Famous child entertainer Fred Roger once called play “the work of childhood.” As children grow and develop, children are introduced to more complex ideas through the ways they play. From the time they are infants, children are watching how mouths work and figuring out what movements are needed to use later. They watch facial expressions and body language.

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Watching the world around them when they are small is one of the first ways children are introduced to the world around them. It all starts to make sense to them, and they can articulate how they feel. As they grow and they learn different actions, watch more play, and start to engage in their own child-led activities, children become more in tune with what they believe in.

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17. Free Play Might be a Child’s Favorite Way of Learning

Free play can be a favorite way to learn something new because it often does not feel like the child is learning. The unstructured nature of the lesson promotes other important aspects of growth and development that are just as important as those found in a textbook.

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Children often find new ways to use the toys that are provided. Pre-kindergarten pupils can use silks as costumes or as ways to decorate for a princess party. The possibilities are endless.

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18. It Breaks Up the Boredom

Life can be busy at times, but it is important to make sure to make time when it is needed. Experts state that one of the most impactful ways that parents can do to spark creativity is to factor in free and uninterrupted blocks of time for free play. The freedom to get involved in what they want to do helps break away the monotony of the everyday. It can be something that they look forward to.

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Boredom can come with its own set of benefits, and because free play encourages critical thinking, children have the opportunity to practice making choices, plan their time and create something from nothing. A simple stick could be just the thing that is needed to stir up some creativity for the next adventure.

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19. Free Play Promotes Empathy

Because children are watching others behavior as to how they should act, it is important to be a good influence. Children often adopt empathy and express the value of feelings, and it is easier to engage in those practices when they can connect those feelings with their own experiences.

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Children in free play can connect thoughts, behaviors, and feelings and understand what another person is going through. Strong empathy skills can lead to great successes later in life. Research has shown that empathy builds a sense of security and strengthens relationships with other children.

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20. It Teaches Cause and Effect

One of the first lessons that children learn is how things work. It starts as a simple call and response. Babies learn that when they cry, adults come to them. Shaking a favorite toy will make it rattle. Learning cause and effect is key in helping a child learn that behavior comes with results.

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The lessons do not end when the babies get older. There are quite a few ways to help children learn cause and effect through free play. Toddlers can learn how to open and close a door or flush a toilet. Cause and effect can also be demonstrated while reading books and play-acting.

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21. Free Play Encourages Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is the ability to think outside the box and problem solve in ways that are not as obvious or typical. The focus is not on the right answer or finishing on time. It instead focuses on looking for as many possible solutions to the problem at hand. The more solutions that an individual can come up with, the more divergent of a thinker that person has proven to be.

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Because this style of thinking is more spontaneous and free-flowing, it pairs well with pretend play. Children are encouraged to be free thinkers, and the skill will prove to be useful later in life.

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22. Free Play Can Be Dangerous (In a Good Way!)

Experts believe that free play provides a chance for young children to practice many useful and crucial skills, including an important emotional skill – fear. Children can learn how to regulate fear and anger while maintaining emotional control in real-life situations.

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“Dangerous” play has been described as the emotionally exciting ways that children play in. Children enjoy being chased by a “monster,” climbing the highest tree in the yard, leaping from the swing at the highest point possible or any number of other stunts that their imaginations can come up with. Researchers note that this play had its limits and children challenge themselves with just the amount of fear that they can tolerate.

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23. Free Play Stimulates Logical Reasoning

English researchers discovered more than 30 years ago that young children could solve logic problems in the context of play that they were not able to solve in a more serious and academic context. The four-year-olds in the study who engaged in play were able to complete problems that were thought to be for those studying junior high.

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The study pinpointed the sharp distinction between two different kinds of reasoning — concrete reasoning and abstract reasoning. Because child’s play involves imagination, children are led to think about things as they might be instead of what they currently are. The preschoolers were able to problem solve because they believed they were playing a game.

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24. It Helps Kids Learn What to Do When Problems Arise

Life can be full of disappointments, and knowing when not to give up can be an important lesson to learn. When children are shown that they can weather setbacks, they are more likely to take risks again. What they set out to do may not have worked the first time, but succeeding can still be an option.

Being able to cope with disappointments is a life skill that children need to grow and develop. The setbacks teach what the child views as important, what they find important, and what will make them happy.

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25. Free Play Incorporates Boundaries

Free play does not mean that parents, guardians, and other loved ones cannot be involved in the children’s playtime activities. It also does not mean that there is a lack of order.

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Play can be led by what the child wants to do and still be considered safe and ordered. Parents may be present and ask questions about the activity and respond accordingly to how their children react.

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26. Free Play Can be a Barrel of Laughs

The old adage that laughter is the best medicine has some truth to it. Laughter can make everything better, and there is research that backs it up. The Mayo Clinic states that laughter can be a stress reliever.

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Free play is not only a fun way to pass the time it also provides free expression so children can be as silly as they want. It is all up to them.

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27. Playtime is Considered a Human Right

The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has deemed the ability to play as a right of every child. Even though it is established as a birthright, playtime is challenged by outside forces that look to rob young people of those opportunities. Child labor, exploitation practices, war and neighborhood violence, and poverty are just some of the obstacles some children face throughout the world.

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Not everyone sees why free play is so important, even in places where access to resources is readily available. Because children deserve the opportunity to create and develop, many advocates for free play have to consider other factors that may interfere with each child getting to reap the advantages.

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28. Free Play Is Also a Special Time for Parents

Mothers and fathers are their children’s first teachers. Because play can begin at any age, mothers, fathers, and other caregivers can be the gateway to assisting children to engage and interact in the world around them. A child’s developmental trajectory is encouraged through their relationships.

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Parents and guardians can use the time spent engaged in free play as a way to see the world through their children’s vantage point. They can immerse themselves in their child’s creative minds as they get a glimpse into how the kids are learning to communicate more effectively. Their nurturing guidance can set another example of how to grow.

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29. Free Play Stresses There Is No Wrong Way to Play

Kids who are immersed in play learn that there is no wrong way to learn, as long as they are learning something. A structured lesson plan is not the only way to build cognitive skills. Children need time to experience and learn from their own surroundings.

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Children-led free play helps them gain cognitive abilities that they will be able to use later in life. They can analyze what is right and wrong by doing and trying something. This trial-and-error process is an important aspect of growing.

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30. Free Play Can Help With Depression and Anxiety

Anxiety and depression have risen in the US over the past several decades, and while everyone experiences bouts of sadness, extreme bouts of depression can lead to young people to think about or commit suicide. Suicide is the leading cause of death in children between 10 and 24 years old.

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A renowned expert, Dr. Peter Gray of Boston College has studied the impact of play for decades, and he states that the recent rise in mental health issues may be correlated to a decline in the ability to play. When children are less likely to engage in activities that they direct, they feel like they do not have control over their own lives. They develop a sense that they are alone in the world. Free play encourages social interaction and dispels feelings of isolation.

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31. It Creates Personal Space

When children feel like they are in more in charge of their own destiny, they are more likely to have more positive feelings about themselves. Parents can set up a creative space that encourages free and active play that could be used again and again.

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Parents and guardians are advised to keep the battery-operated toys out of the free play space area in favor of passive toys like blocks and dolls. Children will be less likely to be programmed to sit and watch these toys and instead will be dreaming up their own creative scenarios during their play.

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32. Free Play Should Be Engaging, But Not Overpowering

When you yourself play with your child, remember that you are the assistant and they are the director. Do not send them the message that your ideas are better, that you can teach them, or that you will make it “more fun,” “more educational,” etc. You follow their lead as passively as possible without being disconnected or detached.

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This trains their muscle to take the lead in play and to be the authors so that they aren’t reliant on your inner world, but rather on their own. And they learn that their ideas have value and are worth pursuing, and they don’t need an adult to give them direction.

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33. It Promotes Alone Time

In today’s social world, it can be beneficial for children to learn to play independently. Parents who constantly hover over their children and their activities are known as helicopter parents. Research has shown that this style of parenting is not providing many benefits to their children’s development. Some have even suggested that helicopter parenting may trigger anxiety.

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Parents who want to encourage free play activities can ensure that the space is safe for children at a certain point to be left alone for small amounts of time. They can have age-appropriate toys on hand that encourage and do not interrupt their flow of play. It is important not to interrupt children when they are in the middle of playing. Let them grow and learn at the moment.

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34. Free Play Helps Sharpen Decision-Making Skills

Because free play centers the action on what the children would like to do, it sets up scenarios where the kids are making the decisions. They are in charge.

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One way to help foster those decision-making skills is to play a game called “Would You Rather.” Parents and guardians quiz their children on different questions and let them experience the consequences of what those decisions may be. For example, shorts on a chilly day would mean they experienced cold legs during recess.

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35. It Is All About Exploration

In addition to helping children make decisions, free play time benefits nearly all areas of a child’s development. This is because the activity that they have chosen is all about them and their exploration.

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Children can work out and test what they perceive all in the name of play. Without predetermined rules or guidelines, the child is the master of whatever he or she wants to explore. Anything can and will be possible.

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36. Free Play Can Involve Inventing

The imagination is a powerful trait to have, and free play helps this cognitive development. Children can explore the past and predict the future. Imagination influences everything we do because it is part of everyday life from the moment we are little until we are grown into functional adults.

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Children’s ability to make up their own games and guidelines fosters this creativity. Studies have shown that active imagination can lead to greater successes later in life.

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37. It Builds Relationships with Peers

When children can work together during unstructured play, they can establish their own rules. They collaborate and solve problems with their own resolutions. They take turns, listen, and share. They have the chance to learn on their own how to make friends.

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Preschool friends are instrumental in helping build social and emotional skills. They help with a sense of belonging and can be an important part of managing stress. As children grow, these social relationships become even more important to their social development.

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38. It’s Fun!

One of the reasons that children look forward to free play is because it can be a fun time. It is enjoyable to explore and interact with the world. Children can race through a structure that they created or retreat to a quiet corner for some reflective time with a crayon and paper. Each can be just as fun.

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By trying out what they find as fun, children can take what is available and make it theirs. They can remember what was fun before and try other ways to make it just as fun or different as the previous time. Playgrounds and outdoor space can be just the place for continuous fun.

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39. Free Play Can Mean Time for Praise

Because playing is so natural to children, chances are the children in your life are already engaging in some form of free play in their daily routine. Parents can encourage more of these kinds of activities by telling their children what a good job they are doing and how impressed they are by the tower that they are building.

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It is time to bring back playtime. Free play presents several benefits for children that can help them throughout their life. From babies to school-aged students, many kids can grow and learn all in the name of fun.

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40. The Benefits of Free Play Last a Lifetime

When a child develops an early love for learning, it opens up so many opportunities. Children who love to learn are inquisitive, curious, and more likely to try new things. Learning at a young age is effortless because kids learn for the sheer joy of it. It feels natural.

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Captivating a young mind through free play provides lifelong skills beyond the classroom. A love for learning can be maintained throughout the school years and throughout adulthood. Children may be more likely to pick up a musical instrument or learning a new language.

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