The Benefits of Play

Some of us remember a time long before tablets and video games when we were told to go outdoors, expected to entertain ourselves often unsupervised. Today we all lead such busy lives that this type of “free play” is harder to come by both in schools and at home, however experts say that unstructured playtime is a key element in a child’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development and is perhaps just as important as their traditional education.

Not only does playtime help kids learn and employ necessary skills, connect with their peers and use their imagination, but it’s beneficial to their overall physical and emotional well-being and the effects of early childhood play can last into adulthood. If you’re a parent, here’s what you need to know about “free play” and the benefits it could have on your child’s development.

What is “free play”?

Free play is defined as unstructured, open playtime in which children can choose their own activities, their own playmates and make their own decisions free of rules or parameters set by parents or supervisors. Unlike other forms of playtime like “guided play” in which an adult participates or “educational play”, which is motivated by learning, free play is natural, spontaneous, and kids are in control of who, what, and how they engage in it.

You might think that mindful or motivated playtime would be better for development, but the aimlessness of free play is exactly what makes it so great for growing brains. Free play puts the power in the child’s hands and encourages them to be imaginative, adaptable, flexible, and social on their own terms, which are benefits that supervised or learning motivated play don’t offer.

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Where did free play go?

Most parents and grandparents would probably agree that kids today seem to spend a lot less time playing outside than they used to and while many would be quick to blame computers and video games, which certainly are a factor, research shows that playtime for children has been on the decline for decades. One study looked at the patterns of children’s play between 1981 and 1997, and found that playtime for children between the ages of six and eight dropped by about 25 percent. Instead, children were spending more time in school, doing homework, or running errands with their parents.

In the last 15 to 20 years, the rise of technology has only worsened this problem and children are spending more time on the couch and in front of a screen than ever before which is cutting into their free play time, particularly outdoors. The same study polled American mothers found that between over 80 percent of the participants blamed television and the Internet for the lack of outdoor play in their children’s lives.

However, nearly the same percentage of those mothers surveyed also admitted to limiting their children’s outside play due to safety concerns. Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, many parents believe that the world is more dangerous for children than it once was, despite the fact that crime rates don’t reflect this. Studies have shown that parents who perceive their neighborhoods as being dangerous are more likely to keep their kids indoors and restrict their outdoor free play.

Whatever the reasons are behind this decline, parents should consider finding ways to reintroduce free play whether it be through limiting their children’s access to screens, carving out time in their busy schedules for playdates, or finding safe, outdoor recreational spaces where their kids can play because the benefits are numerous.

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