Free Play is Not Just Fun… it’s Essential

School’s out and it’s time to plan summer activities for your kids. As parents, we’re constantly trying to find the right balance of keeping our kids busy, but not over-scheduling them.  While structured activities, like camp, swim lessons, dance, and organized sports are a great way to create structure and skill-building, it is equally important that we increase opportunities for unstructured play, as well.

Unstructured activities, or “free-play,” refers to play that allows for open-ended free time without the desire of a specific outcome, goal, or learning objective. There are no rules, goals, expectations, or adult guidance. In short, unstructured play is nothing more than just letting kids be kids. A wealth of research shows that unstructured play is a fundamental necessity for children to thrive physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally.

Here are some ways to encourage independent, unstructured play this summer:

1. Limit your child’s screen time. If a child is immersed in their screen world, they aren’t going to want to play outside. Active play requires a certain amount of effort and limiting screens can make a huge difference in the way kids handle down time. Limit to 2 hours per day max, and try saving screen time for after they’ve played outside or with friends face-to-face.

2. Get outside. Being in nature is a great way to get your child to experience more
unstructured play. Make an obstacle course in the backyard, get imaginative with
sidewalk chalk, or go on a treasure hunt in the woods. The outdoors encourages
creativity. Even a lazy afternoon walk can lead to an open-ended adventure!

3. Schedule “Unstructured Play Time”. Make sure to leave unscheduled blocks of time
every week, preferably every day, where kids don’t have any planned activities.

4. Get messy. Kids will have an easier time absorbing themselves in play if they know they aren’t going to get in trouble for getting paint on their hands or dirty knees. Plus, messy is fun!

5. Don’t step in too quickly to solve problems. This can be a tough one for us parents, but step back to see if they can figure things out and problem-solve on their own, especially during social interactions. Disagreements are inevitable when kids play together. How they deal with them is a big part of their development.

6. Let them be bored. Many of the best games start with boredom. If kids aren’t provided with an activity, they will be forced to use their own creativity, which leads to more captivating play.

Here’s to a summer filled with free play, creativity and imagination!

Erminia Severini, LPC
Licensed Therapist