The Developmental Necessity Of Free Play For Children

Free play is a fun and instructive experience for children. It's also an excellent tool for their education and development

September 21, 2018
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Play is an integral part of childhood, from making mud pies with the hose to climbing everything their little hands can reach. As parents, though, we try to do whatever we can to keep our children safe, and that often means that we try to schedule every second of their day. This management, however, sometimes makes it impossible for them to take part in free play. Why is free and unscheduled play so important, and why should we be making time for it each and every day?

Learning Leadership Skills

We want our children to grow up to be strong leaders, but that isn’t always easy. Learning to be a leader gets harder the older you get — teaching an adult to be a leader can be next to impossible if they’re not already predisposed to it.

Children who are allowed to play without rules or structure learn how to be leaders at a very young age. You’ll see it too — the child who takes charge, kindly, to direct the games as they evolve. These leadership skills will carry them through life and serve them well in their adult years.

This sort of leadership development can’t happen through structured play. It only happens when kids are allowed to be kids and play as their heart’s desire.

Improving Problem-Solving

Whether the problem is figuring out how to slay an imaginary dragon that’s defending the treehouse or simply how to share a snack, kids are surprisingly good at figuring things out for themselves if they’re given enough time. Instead of stepping in and providing the solution on a silver platter, let them figure it out for themselves — it helps them develop out-of-the-box thinking and problem-solving skills that will carry them through life.

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Look at kids as they figure out a problem. Something like needing to cross a small creek without getting wet. As an adult, you might simply step over it or find a way around. A child will look at the creek, then look around to see what they can use to build a bridge, block the water or even cooperate with other children to help them cross first.

It’s a skill we learn as children that’s easy to lose as an adult, but it’s one we should try to foster throughout childhood because it’s beneficial to us as we grow.

Figuring Out Conflict Resolution

We try to do everything we can to keep our children safe and we insist on safe playgrounds to reduce the risk of a fall – since falls are responsible for up to 75 percent of playground injuries. We’ll jump in as soon as we see a fight developing too, but at some point, we have to let them figure out how to handle these problems on their own.

Free play lets kids learn how to handle bullies and conflicts in unique and out-of-the-box ways. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t step in to stop bullies, especially if it looks like harm will come to the children. We’re talking more about regular playground spats — who gets the be the hero in the battle game, or who gets to hold the toy this time around. You’ll be surprised at how quickly they figure out solutions to problems that you might have not even thought of!

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Enhancing Brain Development

Playing with other children is important for more than just learning how to handle conflict or develop the leadership skills that will serve them throughout their lives. It has also been found to be an essential part of brain development. Scientists have discovered that play as a child changes the way that neurons connect in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Without play, those neurons don’t change. The changes in the prefrontal cortex aid the children as they grow with emotional regulation, problem-solving and plan-making.

Yes, you read that right. Your child’s play is an integral part of the physical development of their brain, which means it’s worth a lot more than just a few minutes or hours of fun and entertainment. In addition, play is a great way for your children to stay active, which is important in preventing childhood obesity and starting young ones off with healthy practices. Let your kids play — all you have to do is just sit back and enjoy the show.

Better yet, if you don’t feel like simply watching, join in! Let your child lead the play, but offer to be the monster or the giant or the dragon they need to conquer to win the imaginary prize. It will give you a chance to bond with your little ones, and it might also give you unique insight into the way your child’s mind works. Any way you look at it, what children need is to play, without your interference.