Why Free Time for Play is So Important for Every Child

Play nourishes every aspect of children’s development.

“Play nourishes every aspect of children’s development – it forms the foundation of intellectual, social, physical, and emotional skills necessary for success in school and in life. Play ‘paves the way for learning’”.

This important quote from “Let the Children Play: Nature’s Answer to Early Learning,” is an important reminder for us as parents as we share our days with young children.   Sometimes our lives can be too fast paced, too structured and/or too technology driven, which can limit the free play our children are able to experience.

The American Journal of Play defines play as::

  • Intrinsically rewarding
  • Emotionally rich
  • Inspiring
  • Spiritually elevating

Our children deserve rich, pleasurable, enjoyable and abundant opportunity for play.  There is clear research supporting the importance of play during childhood, as different types of play experiences stimulate physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development in children. When children play, they try new things, solve problems, invent, create, test ideas and explore, developing a broader range of skills and understandings.Children take part in play in different ways as they grow and develop. Sometimes children like to play alone and sometimes they enjoy playing with others. In Learning and Developing Through Play, different ways children engage in play are defined as:

  • Solitary play – The child plays alone.
  • Spectator play – The child watches others playing without joining in.
  • Parallel play – The child plays side by side with another child, often with similar materials, but without interacting.
  • Associative/partnership play – Children begin to play together, developing interactions through doing the same activities or playing with similar equipment or by imitating.
  • Co-operative play – Children interact, take turns, share and decide how and what to play. They collaborate, develop, and negotiate ideas for their play.

As babies, toddlers and young children learn and develop their play with others becomes increasingly intricate and complex.

There are also different types of play. The Child Development Institute defines these five types of play and their associated benefits:

  • Motor/Physical Play – Motor play provides critical opportunities for children to develop both individual gross and fine muscle strength and overall integration of muscles, nerves, and brain functions. Recent research has confirmed the critical link between stimulating activity and brain development. Young children must have ample opportunities to develop physically, and motor play instills this disposition toward physical activity in young children.
  • Social Play – Children interact with others in play settings and have experiences to help them understand social rules such as, give and take, reciprocity, cooperation, and sharing. Through a range of interactions with children at different social stages, children also learn to use moral reasoning to develop a mature sense of values. To be prepared to function effectively in the adult world, children need to participate in lots of social situations.
  • Constructive Play – Constructive play is when children manipulate their environment to create things. This type of play occurs when children build towers and cities with blocks, play in the sand, construct contraptions on the woodworking bench, and draw murals with chalk on the sidewalk. Constructive play allows children to experiment with objects; find out combinations that work and don’t work; and learn basic knowledge about stacking, building, drawing, making music and constructing. It also gives children a sense of accomplishment and empowers them with control of their environment. Children who are comfortable manipulating objects and materials also become good at manipulating words, ideas and concepts.
  • Fantasy Play – Children learn to abstract, to try out new roles and possible situations, and to experiment with language and emotions with fantasy play. In addition, children develop flexible thinking; learn to create beyond the here and now; stretch their imaginations, use new words and word combinations in a risk-free environment, and use numbers and words to express ideas, concepts, dreams, and histories. In an ever-more technological society, lots of practice with all forms of abstraction – time, place, amount, symbols, words, and ideas – is essential.
  • Games With Rules -Developmentally, most children progress from an egocentric view of the world to an understanding of the importance of social contracts and rules. Part of this development occurs as they learn that games like Follow the Leader, Red Rover, Simon Says, baseball and soccer cannot function without everyone adhering to the same set of rules. The “games with rules” concept teaches children a critically important concept – the game of life has rules (laws) that we all must follow to function productively.

How can we nurture playful experiences for our children? 

Encouraging creative free play:

  • Be mindful that your child has time to play.  Provide long, interrupted periods of time for your child (45-60 minute minimum) for spontaneous free play – you may even need to schedule this into the rhythms of your busy days.  Limit screen time and encourage your child to play both indoors and out.
  • Feed your child’s creativity by providing simple, open ended art supplies and materials, such as: crayons, paper, tape, cardboard tubes, popsicle sticks, fabric scraps, and play dough.  Providing open ended materials will encourage your child to apply their imagination. Designate and area in your home where children can freely explore these materials.
  • Include open ended simple toys in your child’s play space to such as: wooden blocks, play silks, a few wooden animals, and a few dolls.  Consider toy rotation to keep your play spaces simple, inviting and manageable.
  • Add natural materials to your child’s play area like: pebbles, shells or acorns and see how your child incorporates these materials into their play experiences.
  • Set up a fun scene while child sleeps – like a floor water/grass silks with animals and block houses, people, treasures.  Your child will wake up surprised and delighted!

 “For healthy play to develop, the child does not need too many or too complicated playthings. In fact, the simpler the materials at hand, the stronger the child’s own inner powers will become, as she transforms a stone into a loaf of bread, a stick into a magic wand, or a plain cloth into a rainbow. Unadorned, natural materials allow the child’s imagination free rein to endow them with all the details it requires.”

Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America

Ideas to Help Facility Guided Play

  • Read or tell exciting stories/fairy tales, encourage your child to act them out.
  • Build a fort together with tables, chairs, giant silks, playclips, with cozy blankets inside and a flashlight. Climb in together.
  • Interact with your child while he or she is playing.  Ask questions.  A study by researchers at Temple University showed that young children who played with blocks along with an interactive adult developed a larger spatial vocabulary (e.g., words like “under” or “over”).
  • Support your child’s imagination by asking questions while your child is engaged in play.  “What can you do with this?”  “How are these two things different?” “What would happen if?  Guided play can be a very effective, child-centered playful learning experience.
  • Play unplugged games with your child. Playing games is a fun way to unplug from our many electronic devices — and build a sense of connection as a family. Board games, stacking games and card games also provide educational opportunities for children to practice important social skills such as taking turns, self-control, communication and perseverance.

Photo Credit: Haywiremedia / Shutterstock

3 thoughts on “Why Free Time for Play is So Important for Every Child”

  1. I love this so much! This is what my senior research project was on in college. I love this topic so much I’m currently building a blog all about it 😉 Unfortunately there are some people that still need convincing, so we gotta keep shouting it from the rooftops.

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