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Mothering › Blog Posts › Free-Range Play

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 Mothering.com 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.


Tags: free-range play, hide and seek, hop scotch, jacks, jump rope, kick ball, Mother May I, outdoors, Play, Red Light/Green Light, Red Rover, unstructured play

Comments (5)

Hi, Great article. I am the proud mother of a very busy, quick learning sixteen month old. I also work at home as an illustrator. I give my girl free range of our one level home by making sure each room is safe for her and having her toys available. That isn't to say her toys take over the home either, I'm pretty ocd so they have "homes" they go to. Point being, she roams at will. Finding her favorite items, bringing them to me occasionally, dancing to the music that we keep on in the background. Sometimes she joins me in my studio and likes to draw with crayons. The rectangular layout of our homes halls gives her freedom in her mind but piece of mind for me as I can hear her at all times and she can't get so far away that it's unsafe. Our schedule changes as she grows, so there really is no set schedule. When she needs nap, she naps for as long as she needs. She will play in her crib for a nice length of time happily after a nap. We walk in the mornings and play outside in the gardens. The afternoons she gets to roam the premises while I work on my art. It's a splendid thing (it's not perfect, just a nice scenario - anyone with a toddler knows it's rough some days!). The child is happy as a clam, isn't clingy, is independent, but still super loving and enjoys sharing her toys. She has a playmate once a week or so who is her age, she works well with others and I love our version of "free range play!" Take care all!
Yes, the importance of play should never be underestimated - it is 'children's work'. I went to a talk by Sue Palmer, author of ‘Toxic Childhood’, where a hall full of adults were asked to recall a favourite childhood memory of play. When asked whether we were outdoors, every single hand was raised. When asked whether we were without adult supervision, again every hand was raised. When asked if we had any manufactured toy (aside from a bicycle which she described as a means of escaping adult supervision) not a single hand was raised. Finally, when asked if our children regularly had this kind of freedom, very few of us were able to raise our hands. I am saddened to think that many of our generation of children are being cheated of those play experiences that we had chosen to be our best.
Thanks for publishing this article on such a vital issue. I've recently published a book that advises parents on how to give their kids a life of everyday play in their neighborhoods. It's called, Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play
Four words, Play At Home Mom: www.playathomemom3.blogspot.com Check out the this link from their website regarding the therapeutic process of play: http://playathomemom3.blogspot.com/2011/10/therapeutic-process-of-play.html And remember, you can't do everything these chicks do with their kids, just take some ideas and then leave the rest :)
I love seeing posts like this! I loved my childhood of exploring the woods with my siblings, no adult supervision. And fortunately I am able to offer my son a similar environment. On days off school he comes to work with me and wanders a shallow creek for hours at a time, building little dams, finding critters, etc.
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