Give Your Kids the Gift of Free Play

Five good ideas to get your kids to just play


Published:

Photo courtesy of Pam Lobley

Too much on the schedule? Children’s lives these days are often planned down to the minute. They go from school to after-care to sports or dance. They take music lessons or participate in scouting. They have homework. Even weekends (especially weekends) can be jammed with tournaments, practices, classes and tutoring. 

Not surprisingly, free play for school-age kids has all but disappeared. Decades ago, it was the only kind of play there was. Kids went outside and played with whatever and whomever was in their neighborhood until it was time to come home for dinner. No one worried if they were improving themselves through lessons or skill building; they were simply expected to play.

In our crazy "get ahead" world, we think our kids will be better off with lots of classes, camps, sports and other types of enriching activities. But studies are now showing how important free play is for our children. It is in fact, a key part of their healthy development and social skills. Free play teaches flexibility and problem solving. It allows children independence, and teaches them negotiation and compromise as they make rules to their own games and then have to play by them.

If your children seem to whine, act combatively, feel anxious or even just tired, it could be a sign that they are burned out on activities and need to just play. Here are some free play ideas you can easily incorporate into your busy lifestyle.

  1. When you choose a daycare or camp for your children, try to pick the one with the least structure and the most recess. Make sure they have time to make up games on their own, or play in a free form way. (Remember “Red Rover” or “Freeze Tag”?) They should be able to play without adults making the teams, calling the shots, deciding the rules.
  2. If they’re having trouble figuring out what to play, teach them games you played: House, Cops and Robbers, Capture the Flag, etc.  They can play these at a park or in a backyard. Show them the game, but then let them play on their own with their friends or siblings. If you need to be nearby for safety reasons, fine, but don’t interfere with their games.  Playing on their own is what gives them independence.
  3. Don’t be afraid to do nothing! It might feel weird to have an empty Saturday afternoon, but resist the temptation to run off to the movies or a museum. Sometimes, a little boredom is just what kids need to get creative and invent something, or unwind and day dream. When they race from one thing to the next, their minds never get bored enough to inspire creativity. 
  4. Enforce unplugged time.  They can’t get bored enough to daydream or invent if they are always on their phone or playing a video game.  You may have to bear some loud wails of protest, but if you can establish that there are certain times of the day when screens are not allowed, they will eventually accept it and cope by thinking of something else to do.
  5. Do not attach a value to their play.  In other words, pretending to be Spiderman for an afternoon is just as good for them as batting practice. As Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Our children spend so many hours a day in the pursuit of knowledge – letting them cultivate imagination is a gift. 

Learning to entertain themselves, and to function in situations when things aren’t going their way, is an essential part of your child’s happiness.  Free play will teach this life skill, and they’ll have fun, too.

Pam Lobley has written comedy, plays, newspaper columns, blogs and books.  Her latest book "Why Can't We Just Play?" is a sweet and funny memoir of a summer she spent “doing nothing” with her kids.  You can keep up with her at www.pamlobley.com.

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Calendar

November 2017

Step back in time with a 19th-century costumed interpreter and watch the millstones at work grinding corn into meal. Registration encouraged online. Tickets available at the...

Cost: $5/adult, $3 ages 7-16. Free for ages 6 and younger

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Celebrate the wonderful world of exotic animals and reptiles. Enjoy live specimens, presentations, raffles, vendors and much more. Purchase tickets online.  

Cost: $12 ages 13 and older, $5 ages 5-12.

Where:
N.C. State Fairgrounds, Kerr Scott Building
1025 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Website »

More information

Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about tummy time alternatives, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to...

Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr.
Morrisville, NC  27560
View map »


Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
Website »

More information

Join Mindful Families of Durham, a Buddhist-inspired spiritual community that supports area parents, caregivers, and their children in the practice of mindfulness and the understanding of the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Erwin Road
Durham, NC  27705
View map »


Sponsor: Mindful Families of Durham
Contact Name: Adam, Laura, Josh, Sumi
Website »

More information

Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about carry positions, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to crawl,...

Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr.
Morrisville, NC  27560
View map »


Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
Website »

More information

Kicks off the holiday season with local art, music, food, and family activities at various locations in Durham’s historic downtown district. Presented by the Durham Arts Council with support...

Cost: Free and open to the public.

Where:
Downtown Durham
120 Morris St.
Durham, NC  27701
View map »


Sponsor: Durham Arts Council
Telephone: 919-560-2719
Contact Name: Susan Tierney
Website »

More information

Participants develop their naturalist skills and understanding of local nature. Ages 5-8 with parent. Register online.

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Celebrate the natural world and where favorite Thanksgiving foods come from. Make a craft. All ages with adult. Register online.

Cost: $1/person

Where:
Crowder District Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd.
Apex, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-662-2850
Website »

More information

Search the preserve for hidden holiday-themed clues and learn about native wild turkeys. Make a turkey decoration. Ages 5 and older with parent. Register online. Choose course code...

Cost: $1/person

Where:
Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve
2900 Horse Shoe Farm Rd.
Wake Forest, NC
View map »


Website »

More information

Search for salamanders, owls and more. Ages 10-13. Register online.

Cost: $12/resident, $16/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Park West Village hosts Winter Wonderland in the District. This year’s event will take place the weekend of November 17th. Take the family to enjoy train rides, magical winter lights, live...

Cost: Free; $5 donation for sledding

Where:
Park West Village
3400 Village Market Place
Morrisville, NC  27560
View map »


Telephone: 919-234-6710
Contact Name: Conner Dixon
Website »

More information

See ponies, hunters and jumpers compete in an event that benefits Duke Children's Hospital. Visit the website for hours and fees.

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Gov. James B. Hunt Horse Complex
4601 Trinity Rd.
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Website »

More information

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Children ages 18 months-4 years and their parents enjoy free creative movement and music classes. The creative movement class focuses on the development of gross motor skills and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Saint Raphael Preschool
5801 Falls of Neuse Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27615
View map »


Sponsor: St. Raphael Preschool
Telephone: 919-865-5725
Contact Name: Sarah Rapp
Website »

More information

Make crafts celebrating turkeys. All ages with adult. Meet at the Cardinal Shelter. Registration not required. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Crowder District Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd.
Apex, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-662-2850
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Children ages 18 months-4 years and their parents enjoy free creative movement and music classes. The creative movement class focuses on the development of gross motor skills and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Saint Raphael Preschool
5801 Falls of Neuse Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27615
View map »


Sponsor: St. Raphael Preschool
Telephone: 919-865-5725
Contact Name: Sarah Rapp
Website »

More information

Kids ages 6 and younger enjoy stories. Take part in an optional arts and crafts session after storytime for $5.

Cost: Free

Where:
Read With Me Book Shop
111 E. Hargett St., $110
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Learn what it was like to be a kid at the first Thanksgiving. Play games and make a food collage. Choose either the 10:30-noon and 2-3:30 p.m. session. Ages 7 and older. Register online.

Cost: $6/child

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, AL
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Toddler Time is a special time for ages 5 and younger to bounce under the supervision of their parents, and without interference from the big kids. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $7-$10

Where:
Sky Zone Durham
1720 Guess Rd., Ste. 90
Durham, NC  27701
View map »


Website »

More information

Children ages 18 months-4 years and their parents enjoy free creative movement and music classes. The creative movement class focuses on the development of gross motor skills and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Saint Raphael Preschool
5801 Falls of Neuse Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27615
View map »


Sponsor: St. Raphael Preschool
Telephone: 919-865-5725
Contact Name: Sarah Rapp
Website »

More information

Explore the woods and shoreline for signs of nature and collect treasures to make a craft. Take a full water bottle, snack and a bag lunch. Ages 6-11. Meet at the Cypress Shelter. Advance...

Cost: $16/child

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
View map »


Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Jackie Trickel
Website »

More information

Kids ages 6 and younger enjoy stories. Take part in an optional arts and crafts session after storytime for $5.

Cost: Free

Where:
Read With Me Book Shop
111 E. Hargett St., $110
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Listen for the sound of silver bells and climb aboard in your pajamas for a first-class journey on the Polar Express. Come early to meet Santa and enjoy kid-friendly activities and a traditional...

Cost: $14-$29

Where:
Meymandi Concert Hall
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Athletes improve their flexibility, balance, joint mobility, as well as body and breath awareness. Special attention will be paid to core strength and posture and its importance in performance and...

Cost: Call for fees

Where:
Little Guru Kids Yoga and Creative Arts
215 Glenwood Avenue, Suite A
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Sponsor: Little Guru Kids Yoga
Telephone: 919-345-5873
Contact Name: Jen Bluestone
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Children ages 18 months-4 years and their parents enjoy free creative movement and music classes. The creative movement class focuses on the development of gross motor skills and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Saint Raphael Preschool
5801 Falls of Neuse Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27615
View map »


Sponsor: St. Raphael Preschool
Telephone: 919-865-5725
Contact Name: Sarah Rapp
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Celebrate what you're thankful for. Play a game and make a pine cone turkey craft. All ages with adult. Drop-in program. Registration not required.

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Shop more than 20 local vendors offering amazing gifts this holiday season. Enjoy daily raffles with proceeds benefiting local animal rescue Paws in the City. Kids can enjoy crafts...

Cost: Free

Where:
Cary Crossroads
333 Crossroads Blvd
Cary, NC  27518
View map »


Website »

More information

Children ages 18 months-4 years and their parents enjoy free creative movement and music classes. The creative movement class focuses on the development of gross motor skills and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Saint Raphael Preschool
5801 Falls of Neuse Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27615
View map »


Sponsor: St. Raphael Preschool
Telephone: 919-865-5725
Contact Name: Sarah Rapp
Website »

More information

A wonderfully kid-paced hour featuring music, play and dancing with toddler stars singing on the mic at Cotton's gently amplified & participatory music show. Children delight in...

Cost: Free with admission

Where:
Pump It Up Raleigh
10700 World Trade Blvd, #112
Raleigh, NC  27617
View map »


Sponsor: Pump it Up
Telephone: 919-828-3344
Contact Name: Owner/manager Kellie Paterson McHugh
Website »

More information

Read the story by Karma Wilson and make a Thanksgiving-themed craft. All ages. Registration not required.

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, AL
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

See a contemporary re-imagination of Tchaikovky's timeless music. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $35-$55

Where:
Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian St.
Durham, NC  27701
View map »


Website »

More information

See the classic holiday story brought to life onstage featuring favorite characters Santa and Mrs. Claus, Hermey the Elf, Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster, Clarice, Yukon Cornelius and...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
Fletcher Theater
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

See the classic holiday story brought to life onstage featuring favorite characters Santa and Mrs. Claus, Hermey the Elf, Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster, Clarice, Yukon Cornelius and...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
Fletcher Theater
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

See a contemporary re-imagination of Tchaikovky's timeless music. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $35-$55

Where:
Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian St.
Durham, NC  27701
View map »


Website »

More information

Catch this comedy classic on the big screen—as the symphony plays the charming and delightful score by John Williams live. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $14-$29

Where:
Meymandi Concert Hall
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Fit & Able Productions presents the Turkey Chase trail festival at Umstead Park. Take part in a 5K, 10K or 20K. After the race, enjoy fruit, brownies and other...

Cost: $25-$45

Where:
Umstead Park
8801 Glenwood Ave.
Raleigh, NC  27617
View map »


Sponsor: Fit and Able Productions
Telephone: 919-673-4689
Contact Name: Travis
Website »

More information

Celebrate what you're thankful for. Play a game and make a pine cone turkey craft. All ages with adult. Drop-in program. Registration not required.

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Toddler Time is a special time for ages 5 and younger to bounce under the supervision of their parents, and without interference from the big kids. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $7-$10

Where:
Sky Zone Durham
1720 Guess Rd., Ste. 90
Durham, NC  27701
View map »


Website »

More information

Shop more than 20 local vendors offering amazing gifts this holiday season. Enjoy daily raffles with proceeds benefiting local animal rescue Paws in the City. Kids can enjoy crafts...

Cost: Free

Where:
Cary Crossroads
333 Crossroads Blvd
Cary, NC  27518
View map »


Website »

More information

The Raleigh Boychoir makes an appearance before its big Christmas concert.

Cost: Free

Where:
Quail Ridge Books
4209-100 Lassiter Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27609
View map »


Website »

More information

Kids ages 6 and younger enjoy stories. Take part in an optional arts and crafts session after storytime for $5.

Cost: Free

Where:
Read With Me Book Shop
111 E. Hargett St., $110
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

See the classic holiday story brought to life onstage featuring favorite characters Santa and Mrs. Claus, Hermey the Elf, Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster, Clarice, Yukon Cornelius and...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
Fletcher Theater
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Take a 30-minute tour to view the main power drive and milling machinery. Tickets available inside the park's visitor center. Online registration encouraged.

Cost: $5/adult, $3 ages 7-16. Free for ages 6 and younger

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Explore the historic nature of Leigh Farm Park with a friendly guide. Venture inside the historic farmhouse while being captivated by tales about life at Leigh Farm throughout the years.

Cost: Free

Where:
Leigh Farm Park
370 Leigh Farm Rd.
Durham, NC  27707
View map »


Sponsor: Durham Parks and Recreation
Telephone: 919-560-1116
Contact Name: Natalya Buckel
Website »

More information

See the classic holiday story brought to life onstage featuring favorite characters Santa and Mrs. Claus, Hermey the Elf, Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster, Clarice, Yukon Cornelius and...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
Fletcher Theater
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Catch this comedy classic on the big screen—as the symphony plays the charming and delightful score by John Williams live. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $14-$29

Where:
Meymandi Concert Hall
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
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