toddler playing outside in a mud kitchen

Benefits of Free Play

Benefits of Free Play

In an over scheduled world children need the benefits of free play more now than ever before. When children seem to have some extra free time available parents are pressured to fill it with more activities. Here is an in depth look at free play and why it is so important.

Although this information is mainly referring to children 0-5 years old, free play is just as beneficial for older children. Even adults gain the benefit of free play, although we don’t call it that. We often refer to it as “me time” or a hobby.

Adults train for triathlons because they enjoy running, swimming, and biking not because someone told them they have to. They do it because it brings them joy and the training that leads up to the big race is an adult’s version of “play.”

What is Free Play?

Free play is an unstructured, spontaneous activity, or game, that is chosen and directed by the child(ren) for an undetermined amount of time.

The child chooses what activity they want, how the play will go, and for how long they play that activity. With free play there is no right or wrong way to play.

Can Adults Join Free Play?

parent engaged in free play

In short answer yes. However, it can sometimes affect the true freedom of play. If the child feels the adult may leave the play they will alter their game/ activity to keep the adult engaging, even if it’s not what the child wants.

The play ends up being more centered around keeping the adult playing, rather than what the child actually wants to play. If you are joining their play try to follow the child’s lead. If they want to build a barn for their animals don’t try to convince them to play a board game instead.

Although joining their play can have its benefits, it is also very important for children to get bored and to entertain themselves.

What are the Benefits of Free Play?

There are so many benefits to play that I have broken it down into different categories. If you want a more in depth look at how children learn through play check out Play is Learning or Benefits of Block Play.

Language Development

As children play there is a lot of talking involved. They learn new words and practice the language skills they have so far acquired. While interacting with adults and their peers, children are able to refine their speech sounds through listening (and watching) others speak.

This is incredibly beneficial to those with a speech or language delay. Language skills are one of the most important skills children learn through play.

Social Development

Social development is a super important skill. It is most beneficial when learned while children are young. When they play with others they learn to pick up on social cues, which play a large part in developing empathy. They learn to use their language skills in order to enter play as well as to take turns and share.

When conflicts come up during play children learn about conflict resolution; things like negotiating and compromising. They also learn to walk away or to agree to disagree.

Cognitive Development

When children are engaging in play they are using and developing their cognitive skills. These skills enable them to think, learn, remember, reason, and pay attention. To develop these skills they problem solve, create, and experiment. Children are thinking and learning non-stop.

As their cognitive skills develop they will start understanding the concept of time, learn to negotiate to get what they want, and continually expanding on their attention span.

Emotional Development

As children play with others and work through social difficulties they learn to recognize their own, and others, emotions. They learn self-regulation which is the skill that helps a toddler not to grab a toy from someone else.

By the time they are 5 years old they have a better understanding of someone else’s perspective and being able to see both sides of a situation. The Australian Parenting Website states “Self-regulation starts when children are babies. It develops most in the toddler and preschool years, but it also keeps developing right into adulthood.”

In addition to self-regulation children build emotional resilience when they are able to solve problems on their own. Another way children increase their emotional development is by dealing with and conquering their fears. This is turn reduces their anxiety and stress.

Reducing Anxiety and Processing Stressors

Although real-life stressors trigger the release of both epinephrine and cortisol, when re-enacting those stressors through play it does not increase cortisol levels. This helps children to process the situation/ stressors without actually causing them more stress.

For example if going to the doctor gives them anxiety then when they are able to play pretend and act out what happens at the doctor’s office it gives them the opportunity to face and process those fears without raising cortisol levels.

Physical Development + Exercise

Leah Shafer of Harvard Graduate School of Education states that “Many children choose to play through their bodies, and physical wellbeing is important for success in other domains. In sports, outdoor games, and dance, children develop strength, muscle control, coordination, and reflexes. They push limits and try new things — racing down a hill, swimming underwater — that can motivate them to take risks in other circumstances.”

Animals Benefit from Free Play too

According to this study, when children, and other animals, are engaging in play it “activates the brain’s reward circuitry but not negative stress responses, which can facilitate attention and action.”

Play looks different for all animals, including humans. Researchers have recognized three different types of play.

Different Types of Play

Types of play

Social Play

All animals engage in social play behaviours. The size of their brain affects how advanced their play is. The bigger the brain the more likely they engage in social play. For the sake of most people understanding puppy play, I will use them as an example.

When puppies are little they play with their litter mates. They rough house, climb, and chew on each other. When a pup yelps the play stops. They are learning about social rules. How hard can I bite before the play stops? What happens if I want to play but the other dog doesn’t want to?

They learn to read other dog’s body language that will help them for the rest of their life. If a dog were to be removed from their litter too early, and did not get those chances to play, thus lacking in socialization, they are affected from this for the rest of their life. They will need someone to help teach them all these “rules” that they could have naturally learned as a puppy.

The same thing happens with children. They learn to read those social cues – has my friend had enough or are they still happily engaging? My friend is walking away upset; I must have hurt their feelings when I said XYZ.

If children were not given that time to play with the other children, they may lack the social skills that will help them through the rest of their lives. For example, when, making new friends at a park, dealing with relationships, or dealing with work place conflict.

Locomotor Play

Locomotor play is often viewed in animals that move a lot. Through their play they engage in games of chase or simply jumping around for no reason at all. The skills they are learning during these bouts of play will help them when they are running away from a predator, or hunting their prey.

This goes with children too. We can often see them running, skipping, or jumping rather than just walking normally. They are building up the skills and muscles that they need for things like riding a bike, playing sports, or swimming. They also do it because it’s fun for them as they explore different ways of moving their body.

Physical exercise also helps to reduce stress in children (just like adults). So when children are being extra active in their play it is possible that they subconsciously need to reduce their stress level.

Object Play

One of the most common types of play. Children and animals use objects for their play. Children, even with no toys, will find objects to play with. They find sticks, rocks, containers, or random pieces of something. Animals in captivity have been recorded playing with toys or sticks as well.

What is Play Good For?

No matter what we do children and animals engage in play. They seek and strive for play time. Some say play is what children do when they have nothing else to do and that it’s a screen saver for their brain. But Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt, of US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, argue that theory. They give an example that I think most adults can relate to:

“The ability to enjoy an activity is a survival trait. We are wired to like activities that help ensure our survival. For example, we may think we seek sex because it’s fun, but in reality, sex is essential. Sex is fun because seeking it is adaptive. People who don’t like sex have a harder time finding mates and having kids. In general, enjoying an activity is a hardwired response that causes the brain to seek out that activity. If these essential behaviors weren’t enjoyable, we might forget to do them. On these grounds, it seems that play must have an adaptive purpose, providing some survival advantage.”

Play Makes us Feel Good

Engaging in play, or other enjoyable activities, causes our brain to send out chemical signals (rewards) that keep us coming back for more. One of those chemicals connected to increasing play behaviours is dopamine.

According to WebMD “Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter. Your body makes it, and your nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells.” And that “Dopamine plays a role in how we feel pleasure. It’s a big part of our unique human ability to think and plan. It helps us strive, focus, and find things interesting.”

Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt note that with young squirrel monkeys, the high amounts of play was connected to low levels of cortisol “suggesting either the play reduces stress or, possibly, that unstressed monkeys are more likely to play.”

Similar results were noted in bears during the first year of life, the amount they played during that first summer is associated to their survival over the winter. Regardless of how you look at it your child playing is a good thing.

What Happens When Children are Not Allowed to Play?

When children are not able to play in early childhood it can affect them for the rest of their lives. They may struggle with social situations, involving work, relationship, and their overall life.

It has been noted that in the last several decades play time has been reduced and replaced with academics and screen time.

Along with the decline of play the increase in depression and later in life difficulties have also been noted and seem to go hand in hand.

When rats and cats are raised in social isolation they have trouble dealing with others of their kind. They typically react with aggression.

Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt state “A notable feature of psychopaths is that their childhoods lacked in play.”

Now this does not mean that if your child does not play as a child that they will turn into a psychopath, but there is a connection. There are usually some additional factors, such as trauma, along with the lack of play, in psychopaths.

How to Encourage Free Play

  • Make sure there is time available for the child to have free play.
  • Turn off the screens. The less screen time the more they will play. The more they learn.
  • Have open-ended toys
  • Take away some of the scheduled activities – creating more time to for free play
  • Go outside. Get into nature. The endless supply of materials leaves everything open to imagination.
  • Let them be bored. This may take a little getting used to and they may complain. But being bored can lead to such fun. They may discover new interests.
  • Invite friends over or meet them somewhere. Or if you have neighbouring children encourage them to go out and play with them.
  • When choosing a childcare center, look for one that is play based.

Disadvantages of Free Play

Along with benefits there are some disadvantages to free play. It can sometimes involve risk taking. Risky play is an important part of their developmental process. They test the boundaries to figure out what is safe and what is not. Accidents can happen when children, or anyone, take a risk.

The saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” fits well when it comes to play. If a child is running full speed down a hill and they fall, they may hurt themselves. But the next time they do it they will remember what happened and will consciously slow down to prevent them from falling. 

When there are no adults around or involved it can possibly lead to bullying or some children getting excluded. This is where it is important for adults to teach children how to deal with those situations. It is also important for children to know when to come and seek help from an adult.

When children are engaging in free play it does not always mean unsupervised. When you are supervising, it is imperative that you do not helicopter parent and allow the children to try and work out their problems by themselves first.

How Much Free Play Should Kids Have?

This varies for every family’s situation. It also depends on how much free play the child is used to. The goal is to have them playing during all non-scheduled time.

If your child is not used to playing by them self start in 15 min increments. You can also set up small invitations to play that will draw them in and start engaging.

If they are not in childcare they should be having lots of time to play at home with their toys, playing with other children, exploring outside, going to the park, attending a drop in (like strong start), or something  similar where the child is able to lead the activity and play how they want to.

This shouldn’t be a problem if your child attends a play based daycare or preschool. But just because they have been playing all day does not mean that when they come home they can just sit in front of a screen until they go to bed. They should be encouraged to go and play.

Benefits of Play in Early Childhood Education

The benefits of free play in childcare are typically higher than free play at home. There are more children that they are interacting with. And it’s not always with a child that they are friends with. Childcare centers tend to have different materials than what your child has at home, thus providing a new learning opportunity.

Academic Benefits of Play

From play children can learn early math skills, science, language + literacy, and art exploration, plus so much more.

Everything academic that children need to learn before entering elementary school can be learned through play. Some children will be more interested in learning their numbers and letters before others. And some children will be more interested in developing their gross motor skills before others.

It does not matter which order children learn things in. But children tend to focus on one skill at a time. If you look at a group of three year old’s, you may notice that some of them may be able to recognize and identify the letters in their name but not be able to balance along a 2X4. Whereas another child doesn’t know the letters but they can climb, jump, and balance better than the child who knows their letters.

It has been proven that regardless of whether a child learns to read before they enter kindergarten or after it shows no difference for them later in life. So we can stop pushing so hard for our child to learn their numbers by the time they’re two years old or for them to know the name and sounds of every letter by the time they are four. It really makes no difference.

Except it has been noted that the children who were able to play freely and socialize rather than learn academics during those first few years will have an easier time going into kindergarten than the children whose parents focused on scheduled activities and academics.

Kindergarten Readiness

I have personally spoken to many kindergarten teachers and what they really want children to know before entering kindergarten is not their ABC’s and 123’s, or if they can cut out a perfect circle.

They want them to know how to share with other children, how to use their words. They should also be able to get themselves dressed and undressed, and to have all of those basic social skills. Everything else will be taught in kindergarten.

Some parents may find that if their child has been pushed to learn all the academics early, they may get bored in kindergarten as they have already learned it all.

Stages of Play

Stages of play is a social behaviour theory developed by Mildred Parten Newhall in her 1929 dissertation. She observed American preschool age children (ages 2-5) when they were at free play. Free play is defined as anything unrelated to survival, production, or profit.

Although modern scholars do agree that Parten’s theory has contributed substantially to our understanding of play, there are still some disagreements on whether children actually go through the sequence of play stages. Some have questioned whether toddlers really are unable to play cooperatively or whether older children engaging in solitary play is a sign of immaturity or is just less common. Some others have suggested that the type of play may be influenced by other circumstances, like how well the children know each other.

While her theory is very useful for educators and parents it needs to be remembered that each child is different and has their own play preferences. These stages should be looked at as different forms of play rather than comparing to see if the child is “normal.”

Stages of play

Examples of Free Play

Nearly anything could be part of free play as long as the child is the one choosing the activity. Some of the most common things are:

  • Playing with blocks, Lego, Magnatiles
  • Doing a puzzle
  • Colouring a picture
  • Painting or gluing
  • Outdoor play
  • Playing dress up, playing pretend

What is Guided Play?

Although guided play can have free play aspects to it, it is still an adult-led activity. Guided play is when the adult is choosing the activity. This does not mean the child will not enjoy themselves or that they won’t learn anything.

This could be something like a circle time game where all the children are intended to participate. Or it could be a child helping a parent cook. It is still fun for the child but it is not fully led by the child. Child summer camps are also a good example of guided play. The camp counsellor comes up with a game or idea and the children expand on it.

Play is the Work of Children

Play is the most effective way for them to learn the skills they need for the rest of their lives. It is also the way that they learn about their interests. For these reasons, we want to encourage children to explore, experiment, and learn about their world.

Don’t try to mold your child through enforced activities and what you feel they should enjoy doing and just let them play. Help them to become the best at who they are.

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