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We live in a Hi-Tech, hyper scheduled world. When I transitioned from working full time to staying at home with two little kids, I realized that I wanted to change that. After two years of heavy scheduling with one little kid and two parents working irregular hours, I wanted to spend some time focusing on relaxing our home schedule and building a more consistent normal routine.

While I love planned, organized activities with my kids, we do special crafts and other guided activities, and its a lot of fun. I’ve recently been using guided practices to help my toddler learn to tackle more abstract puzzles. But at the same time, I’ve been trying to keep time for my kids to play freely, give them time to take the reins and do whatever they want with their toys.

The importance of free play, which is defined by Merriam-Webster as “unrestricted movement, activity, or interplay,” is well supported by a number of studies and publications. There are a bunch of articles and posts about not over-scheduling your children’s lives with organized extra curricular activities. While organized activities are great, and have wonderful developmental benefits for kids, they can be overdone. I’ve spoken to students who were so busy with all their activities and schoolwork, that they rarely get time to just do what they want, and explore creatively. There have also been studies showing that over-scheduling, and lack of free play in children, has a correlation with anxiety and depression.

Over the last year I have prioritized tech free play time at home for the little ones. While I love technology, and there are some wonderful applications for free, creative play available, its incredibly important to make certain that there is lots of time for free play in the real world. We play outside, in the living room, or at play groups, and I’ve seen so much growth and development in the boys during this time.

It hasn’t been easy all the time. Player 3 is a technophile; if he had his way the television would always be running cartoons or video games, and I’d be giving him free range with my devices as well. Free play times have often started with a temper tantrum because he’s demanding television time, and I’ve told him no. Usually after boredom sets in, which is pretty quick, he’ll start coming up with something to do. Boredom is a wonderful tool for creativity; he’s produced some really creative things, fueled by nothing but boredom, and me sticking my ground to keep the television off. My personal recent favorite was when he used all his toys and our furniture to build his own personal platforming area for his Mario plush. He essentially developed a real life Mario Maker-esque play zone out of our living room. I wish I had a chance to snap pictures before he tore it all down.

There are benefits in taking time for free play for me too. Removing the distractions of my devices has given me some good opportunities to create and brainstorm. I’m not above getting down on the floor and building with Duplos, blocks, or crayons and paper. The boys see me doing this too, and it encourages them to do the same.

The Benefits

Here are some of the benefits that I’ve seen in actively making free play part of our daily activities:

  • Socialization: This is the time when the boys have really learned to interact together, and Player 3 has improved at play groups as well. Since Player 4 is only 9 months old, I obviously have stepped in when play gets too rough. Its helping Player 3 learn about boundaries and patience.
  • Imagination: Player 3 creates his own story and own world as he plays. He takes roles and gives them to me as well when he lets me join in.
  • Exploration: Both boys spend time exploring the world around them. They recently completed an in-depth survey of our piano, experimenting with the keys and foot pedals. Outdoor time in our backyard or at the playground is great for this with all sorts of insects, plants, rocks and other things to examine.
  • Movement: Both boys get pretty rowdy during free play. Balls and cars are rolling around, Player 3 is running and Player 4 is crawling and climbing on everything he can reach. Watching them for safety is important, but they get great exercise. Player 4 makes the most progress in learning new mobility skills during this time.
  • Leadership: By giving Player 3 the opportunity to play with less interference, and assisting him as he wishes, I’ve seen him grow in his abilities to communicate and make decisions.
  • Experimentation: Both the boys tackle a lot of goals through trial and error. Staying hands off and letting them figure things out for themselves gives them some great satisfaction in learning certain skills.
  • Facing Fears: Player 3 has always been a cautious child; he is very wary of change and taking risks. By letting him play with me physically there but allowing him leeway to experiment, I’ve seen him start taking more calculated and appropriate risks, such as tackling slides at the playground.
    Player 4 is not cautious like that at all. Sometimes I wish he was more cautious, but during play time he often initiates new behaviors and tries new things. For example, last week he grabbed my pants leg and pulled himself up, and started practicing walking as I pushed him across the floor. When I’ve tried to initiate this behavior in the past he’s resisted.

Both free play and guided/structured play provide children with ways to learn and develop. There have been studies showing that free play fosters creativity, social development and emotional growth and stability.

Some Tips

  1. Look for play groups or arrange play dates with your neighbors and friends. There is a group at my church for babies and preschoolers, with a regular play time. I also take advantage of open play times at my local library and nature center. Try to relax and let the kids play. Don’t try to force socialization on them; let them approach each other.
  2. Get down on the floor and play yourself. Setting an example can be a great way to stimulate your kids to take over and play. I sometimes take a small number of blocks or some other toy and leave the rest for the boys. But I let them initiate bringing me into their play not the other way around. If they want to play with me I relax and let them take the lead.
  3. Let your child be in charge, and develop their own story and activity. You can participate, but don’t take over. Consider yourself a moderator; make certain that safety and house rules are being met.
  4. Go to the playground. Its a wonderful place for your child to push themselves, and have fun doing it. Player 3 is scared of heights, but he loves going to the playground and attempting slides, even if he sometimes chooses to back away.

Toys

Here are some toys that my boys have enjoyed during free play times, at our house, church and other play groups. There are also some that I learned about from my niece:

Technology

While this article focused on screen-free opportunities, there are some good apps and games that can give you similar experiences.

Toca Boca: I’ve mentioned this company before, but I have been really impressed by how they create a digital free play environment for young kids. I have one of the apps on my phone, and makes a great creative play break for Player 3 if we’re having a busy day running around or travelling. They are available on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Fire. 

For older children, teens and adults:

What are some of your kids favorite toys or apps that let them play more freely? What was your favorite way to play as a child? I’d love to hear about your experiences!

More Reading:

The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds

Free Play: Why All Toys And Apps Shouldn’t Teach Your Kid To Code

The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids, by Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Sandahal