The Benefits of Play

6 minute read

By Kathleen Corrigan

Some of us remember a time before tablets and video games when we were told to go outdoors and expected to entertain ourselves. Today, free play is less common. That’s a shame, given the benefits. Start a search today to learn about free play.

Experts say unstructured playtime is a key element in a child’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development and is perhaps as important as traditional education. If you’re a parent, you’ll want to understand the benefits of free play.

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 and 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 doesn’t offer.

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 and 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.

How free play can help

Here are just some of the ways that free play can help a developing mind and body.

It encourages movement

Childhood obesity has become somewhat of an epidemic in America over the last few decades and the problem only seems to be getting worse. There’s no doubt that children need to be more active, however, some experts say that pushing exercise or sports on kids isn’t the best approach. After all, not all children excel in gym class or organized sports and those activities are often heavily supervised and involve a lot of rules. Forcing kids to participate in structured physical activity that they don’t enjoy is not going to encourage them to choose to be active on their own later in life and doesn’t come with the added advantages of free play.

Some experts believe that a better approach is to reframe exercise as open playtime. Not only does it allow children to be active in a way that suits them, but it takes the emphasis off of concepts like weight loss or activity levels, which children are too young to be worrying about, and puts the focus on fun. So rather than telling your kid to get off the couch to get some exercise, encourage them to get off the couch and play by running, jumping, dancing, climbing or exploring – whatever they wish!

It teaches decision-making and problem-solving

Think for a moment about what it was like to be a child and constantly be told what to do and when to do it. Between school, extracurriculars, homework, and chores, your kids don’t have that many opportunities to make their own choices or solve their own conflicts or problems without the help of a grown-up. Being able to develop and practice cognitive skills like decision-making and problem-solving are imperative for a child’s development and free play is a perfect opportunity for them to do so.

Whether they are deciding what or who to play with, figuring out an imaginative use for an everyday object or learning how to use a new toy, free play allows kids to practice the skills they will eventually need to become independent and capable youths.

It teaches social and language skills

While solo free play is certainly valuable, group play has the added benefit of exposing your child to social situations, giving them a chance to work on their interpersonal and language skills from a young age. Social free play in which children invent their own games, storylines, or jokes with one another provides kids with a powerful bonding experience and sense of belonging.

It can also help them learn to communicate, cooperate, compromise, and empathize with others without adult encouragement. This is an imperative skill for children to learn because as they grow, they will need to know how to navigate social situations on their own. Having to explain to another child how the rules of a game work or solve a dispute on their own through compromise will go a long way to helping them become good communicators as they grow up.

It brings out their creativity

There’s something so inspiring about the bold creativity that occurs in a child’s mind. To them, a cardboard box can be a spaceship, a set of pots can be drums, or their bed can be a boat in the middle of the ocean. Children are bursting with incredible imaginations and tons of creativity, but structured or educational play doesn’t foster this in the same way free play can.

Free play is creative in and of itself; it encourages kids to dream up characters and generate storylines and event sequences over a period of time. It allows them to hone their divergent thinking (idea-generating) skills and learn to improvise, which is a key element in adult creativity.

Improve their mood

We’re sad to say it but studies have shown that youth today are more anxious and depressed than they used to be and its estimated that mental issues are five to eight times more prevalent in teenagers than they once were. Some studies have linked this rise in depression to the decline of free play and free will. When children feel less in control of their lives, which kids today do, they feel helpless, making them more susceptible to anxiety and depression. Some experts suggest that children who engage in free play not only feel happier because they’re in control, but they also get more exercise and more sunlight which can all be linked to better sleep and mood regulation.

The positive outcomes of free play are numerous and it is considered to be a fundamental building block for a healthy young mind. So, whenever you can, encourage your kids to turn off the TV, put down the video games and get outside for some good old-fashioned playtime. When they grow up to be happier, more well-rounded and creative adults, you’ll be glad you did.

Kathleen Corrigan