Free play isn’t just beneficial or important, it’s essential. It allows children the opportunity to learn by exploring the world around them, to use their imaginations and creativity, and to develop social skills and emotional resilience through their interactions with other children.
But in order for children to reap the rewards of free play, adults need to know how to facilitate it. There are the obvious things like placing restrictions on screen time, and not over-scheduling our children’s lives into organised, adult-led activities. But there are also the less obvious things.
Here are some of my suggestions.
Let sleeping dogs lie. Let happy children play. Whether playing alone or with other children, if they’re busy, leave them be whenever possible. Very young children will develop their ability to focus on things for longer. Older children engrossed in a game clearly don’t need our input. If we have something we want them to do, can it wait until later? Be flexible.
Don’t make suggestions
My child never does anything I suggest. He will go out of his way not to. Everything must be done his way. I think he’s a bit of a chronic case, but the principle still holds: children like to come up with their own ideas and invent their own games. We need to trust in their ability to do this.
Having said this, I do sometimes subtly leave things lying around that I think my child might play with when he sees them. Often I keep packaging like bubble wrap, polystyrene, or cardboard boxes. Once I gave my child and his friends some carpet off-cuts. But I didn’t make any suggestions as to what they should do with them….
Free play means free of adult direction. Butt out. Let the children make up their own games, their own rules, and come up with their own solutions to problems. They can do it! Occasionally an adult does need to intervene, especially where younger children are involved. Perhaps the children need reminding to make sure everyone gets a turn, perhaps feelings are running high and a situation needs defusing. But give them the chance to resolve things on their own first. Every time we step in we deprive kids of the opportunity to exercise their judgement, their ability to come up with ideas, to manage conflict, and to just, well, play on their own, which is kind of the whole point.
Allow some risk taking. Children will only learn to manage risk by experiencing some level of risk. Again, we need to trust them to use their judgement, and use ours a little more when it comes to deciding if it’s really necessary to step in or to restrict something. Our risk-averse culture prompts us to step in far too often.
Allow play fighting. Whether wrestling or playing with pretend weapons, we really need to get over it. It’s normal. Trying to ban it is a mistake. Wrestling kids probably will take the occasional bump, but it’s unlikely to lead to death or hospitalisation. Remind them of some basic rules if you must, like no biting or kicking. Observe the play closely. As long as both children are happy, both are willing participants, and the stronger child is holding back some strength, then all is as it should be.
When we dress ourselves in the morning we choose our clothes based on what we’re planning to do that day. Don’t we? So if we’re going to do some decorating or gardening we don’t put on our best suit or dress.
Kids are probably planning to play most days. So dress them for it, and don’t stress about it when they get dirty. More importantly don’t project your stress about it onto your child. Children need to be free to explore and have fun uninhibited by concerns over their clothes or appearance. This is childhood. Adulthood comes later.
“The very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play; the animal does not play because he is young, he has a period of youth because he must play.” Karl Groos