Free-Range Play




Someone once told me that mammals learn through play. When children run and play they are also learning. They are using their creativity, developing their self-confidence, building resiliency, increasing physical prowess; learning how to work in groups, to share, negotiate, and resolve conflicts; and honing self-advocacy skills. Play is the work of children and it is through un-structured, self-directed play that children learn to make decisions, and to identify their interests and passions.


Play comes natural to children. Sometimes, if children have been watching a lot of television or have known mostly structured play, they will imitate TV and other’s directions in their play. As they have more time for themselves, they will learn to play in an original way. When children complain of being bored, this state is the very cauldron of creativity. Don’t rescue them from their boredom.  Allow them this discontent. Boredom makes creativity inevitable.




It’s almost summer now and those warm endless days and nights are near. Here are some ideas to encourage playfulness:


Go bike riding.


Take a walk at night when the moon is full.


Gaze at the stars.


Go on a bug safari.


Make some large cardboard appliance boxes available.


Give your children a video camera to use.


Make a detailed map of your yard, your house, your neighborhood.


Have a scavenger hunt.


Put on a treasure hunt.


Invite the neighborhood over for a circus.


Make boats from wood scraps and corks with paper or fabric sails and sail them down a creek or in the gutters.


Decorate each other’s faces with face paints.


Fill a toy box with old clothes, skarves, jewelry, hats, and shoes.


Make an outdoor obstacle course or par course.


Fill walnut shell halves with candle wax and a tiny wick. Light them and place them around the garden or on a pond at night.




When I was a child we played lots of outdoor games like jump rope, hop scotch, jacks, Hide and Seek, Kick Ball, Red Rover. Mother May I and Red Light/Green Light. These last two are especially fun at dusk. In Mother May I, one player is chosen as Mother. The other players stand a fair distance from her. She calls each in turn by name and instructs them to take a number of baby steps, giant steps or scissors steps. The player must remember to say, “Mother May I” before each move or go back to the beginning. The first player to Mother wins.


In Red Light/Green Light, one person directs the rest of the team to either move or not move and the first to the finish wins. If you’re moving when the light turns red, you have to go back to the beginning.




Sometimes we think we have to play with our children in order for them to play. This is not true. We may want to play with them sometimes, spontaneously, but most often play is of their own invention and is their own business. They model our busyness with their own. What they need is free time.


This is different from days at home when there are things scheduled to do, like chores. What children need is totally unstructured time to invent and reinvent themselves. Adults need that too. How can we give our children the opportunity for more free time in which to play?


Peggy O’Mara  (101 Posts)Peggy O’Mara founded in 1995 and is currently its editor-in chief. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has lectured and conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League International, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four.


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