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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