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The Power of Free Play

Date Posted:  Friday, April 12, 2019

Between after school clubs, organized play-dates and other extracurricular programs, children are engaged in more activities today than ever. This is a result of a popular trend among parents; in order to fully support your child and their development, your child must be engaged in a multitude of programs. In this hyper-driven and controlling environment, stillness or lack of pre-planned organized activities can be seen as a lack of good parenting.

Nobody wants to feel that they aren’t doing enough for their children. So when we see someone else's child enrolled in one activity after another, and their parent is going above and beyond, we may very well think that we, as a parent, are inadequate and should be doing more. In this way, we all jump on the same train, regardless of whether we know we’re going down the right track. We just think, "they must know something that we don't", so we end up following others, hop on the train, and collectively steamroll down the unknown path.

Children need free time

As an educator (music teacher, after school teacher, Extended Day Director) for the past 17 years, I feel that it is important for me to speak out on a critical issue facing our children today. They need free time! We are slowly but surely taking more and more of it away as time goes on. Children today have much less free time than ever before. This freedom is absolutely critical for their creative and social development!

An article in the American Journal of Play details not only how much children's play time has declined, but how this lack of play affects emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self control.

Keeping them busy

"Since about 1955 ... children's free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children's activities," says the author Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College. Gray defines "free play" as play a child undertakes him- or her-self and which is self-directed and has an end in itself, rather than part of some organized activity.

Despite study after study maintaining the importance of this very basic childhood experience of free-time, we as parents and educators tend to get squeamish when we think our children aren’t engaged or getting some immediate knowledge.

Better self directed control

According to an article in The Atlantic: “The authors studied the schedules and play habits of 70 six-year-old children, measuring how much time each of them spent in ‘less structured,’ spontaneous activities such as imaginative play and self-selected reading and ‘structured’ activities organized and supervised by adults, such as lessons, sports practice, community service and homework. They found that children who engage in more free play have more highly developed self-directed executive function. The opposite was also true: The more time kids spent in structured activities, the worse their sense of self-directed control.”

In a sense the model that we seem to be spiraling towards is akin to the top-down micro-management of our children. When adults are always organizing and planning the schedule of a child's life, it completely hampers the child’s own ability for self-governance, motivation, free thought and initiative.

Problem-solve on their own

We need to fight the deep urges in ourselves to solve, organize, design, and pre-determine everything for our children. When it comes to recess or aftercare, too much structure and guided activity actually displaces real world learning and denies children opportunities to problem solve on their own, create their own agenda, learn how to navigate the complex world of friendship and the broader community.  

Our deepest moments in life and bursts of creativity come when we’re given the time to just be, to follow our own paths, to sit and think, to wonder, explore and discover. Whether quietly digging in the dirt with a stick, talking with friends, wandering across a grassy field, building a fort in the bushes, creating a haunted house from scratch, doodling on paper or building a magical castle with Legos, all of these moments have value, an unquantifiable value that we as adults need to remember and recognize.

"The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain," says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. "And without play experience, those neurons aren't changed," he says.

Conflicts on the playground

It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire the brain's executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, Pellis says. So play, he adds, is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork.

It is this perspective that guides the work we do in Extended Day with your children. Does this mean we never plan activities? No, we absolutely do. But we see ourselves as the keepers and protectors of this very sacred time for our children. Where others may see chaos, we see children centered around learning and social interaction. When others see conflict arising between children, the immediate urge is to prevent it and fix it. We see conflict as a natural, yet difficult learning opportunity for our students and so we guide them through conflict resolution processes great lessons can be learned. We emphasize freedom, choice and creativity and provide an environment where these ideas can flourish.

Don’t solve everything for your child

The appearance that children are doing nothing can be quite unnerving for a parent, and even uncomfortable for the educator, as we know that this perception can lead to a multitude of parent emails or questions regarding programming and whether their children are receiving the proper attention they deserve. But we have to reflect on this, take a step back and fight our adult-centered urges and allow for this space. It is our duty as parents and educators to nurture EVERY aspect of the child. This may be difficult for some parents to do, but it is absolutely necessary.

Simple Steps That You Can Take:

  • Most importantly, let your child have free time!
  • Don’t over enroll your children in activities (1 or 2 per week is probably best)
  • Don’t solve everything for your child. Let them work to solve and resolve.
  • Let go of control sometimes!
  • Don’t freak out when you see them doing - what appears to be - nothing (it is something!).
  • Let them be “bored” sometimes.

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