How to encourage free play?

Like many parents my age, I grew up playing unsupervised: at home, in our backyard with my sister, but also on our front porch with the neighborhood kids. Our free time was filled with bike rides, building forts, trying to catch the neighbors’ cats, playing with other kids both younger and older without adult intervention.

Our kids on the other hand get a lot of adult attention with limited opportunity for free play. As they relied increasingly on us for entertaining, we decided to introduce simple changes in our home and explain the importance of free independent play to our nanny as well.

What is free play? 

Free play is child initiated, spontaneous and guided by the child’s imagination without the direction of an adult. It does not include time with screens (TV, video games, or computer).

Why is free play important?

When play is controlled by adults, children have to follow our rules and concerns (like winning) and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership and social skills.

Structured lessons are obviously important but it is equally important for children to experience free play so that they can:

  • practice decision making, experience trial and error because that is when the best learning occurs
  • handle social situations on their own: how to work collaboratively, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and learn self-advocacy skills
  • discover areas of interest on their own, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue
  • free, child-driven, creative play protects against the effects of pressure and stress

How to encourage free play?

  • Make a dedicated play space

If you can, try to create a space for play in your home where it is ok for your child to play and make a mess.

  • Try not to intervene

It’s not easy but for children’s imagination to take hold of them, adults shouldn’t intervene.

  • Choose open ended toys

That is toys that require a child’s input to make them come to life: dress-up clothes and hats, cars and trains, dolls and animals, role play props (doctor, shopkeeper…), legos and building sets, small toys and figurine (preferably not cartoon characters as they will easily be trapped into one scenario), large cardboard boxes for pretend boats and airplanes…

  • Make toys easily accessible

In our home, we sort toys in low open baskets so that they are always visible and easy to reach.

  • Rotate toys

We are regularly putting toys away and bringing others out again. The kids never seem to notice it and the joy they experience when they rediscover their old toys is like a Christmas morning.

  • Invitations to play

When we have time, we set up little invitations to play. They are usually very simple and are just meant to invite our kids to start their own imaginative play.

Ex: Leaving a large cardboard box with crayons in it, placing toy cars in boxes, preparing a tea party for dolls and teddy bear…

  • Craft box

Have a busy box at hand with simple material such as crayons, painters tape, foil paper, leaves and sticks, notebook and paper, stickers, envelopes, scissors and old magazines, toilet paper rolls…

  • Invite other kids

Social play with other children is one of the main ways of learning to interact with others. Allow children to work things out themselves up to a certain point before intervening.

(To read the Indonesian translation, click here)

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