Big Reasons Why Free Playtime is Important for Child Development
Think back to your childhood. Do you remember how much time you spent playing outside? Making mud pies? Playing red rover? Engaging in a breathless game of tag?
Whatever amount of time you remember, it’s probably fewer hours than your parents spent outside as children—or their parents. For the last 60 years, children’s unstructured [or “free”] playtime has steadily declined.
Free play has largely been replaced by more structured playtime activities such as soccer or dance. As engaging as those activities are, none of them match the power of free or “unstructured” play time.
In fact, playtime is so crucial for child development in so many ways that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognizes it as a right of every child.
Let’s dive into the definition of unstructured or “free” playtime, how it benefits children, and how we can encourage children to engage in this crucial part of growth.
What’s the Difference? Free Playtime vs. Structured Playtime
What is free or “unstructured” play time? It’s playtime that’s not planned. It’s spontaneous play without an agenda or goal. It’s a game of Duck-Duck-Goose or a make-believe tea party just for the fun of it.
There are benefits to creating a structured playtime with educational intent. However, like most things in life, it’s all about balance.
Too much structure can be detrimental to a child’s growth. In fact, one study showed that children who mainly engaged in “structured” playtime activities that were guided by adults had worse “executive function” skills than the children who had more unstructured activities. The children with more hours of free playtime were better at making goals for themselves and following through.
Note this study showed a correlation, not a cause-and-effect result—but it does make sense. Even a game of unsupervised tag requires planning, thought, and rules to be successful, and it’s up to the children to execute.
The Biggest Benefits of Free Playtime
Unstructured playtime isn’t just for fun. The benefits range from physical to psychological, and they’re all built in a low-pressure environment. Here are some basic ways free play has been proven to benefit children:
- Play helps build the foundation for better math, tech, or science skills
- Play helps with problem solving & emotion management
- Play boosts creativity
- Play boosts social skills
- Physical play boosts physical health
- Play helps children learn to plan
- Play keeps anxiety low & boosts happiness
When a child makes flowers into jewelry or pretends they’re a pirate on the high seas, they’re free to develop interests without the pressure of reaching a goal or attaining a prize. When they play a game of fox and geese with friends, they develop qualities of leadership and diplomacy.
What Happens When Free Playtime Gets Cut
Part of the reason free playtime gets cut is because of our drive to “set children up for success.” This goal in itself isn’t a bad thing. But when every activity must be guided to instill a skill or educational concept in children—especially at the expense of free play—it can be a problem.
As free play time decreases, rates of anxiety and depression rise. Is there a connection? According to Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Boston College, there may be. Gray points out that children learn to regulate emotions during free play with others, and if this is stunted, children may be at risk of developing anxiety disorders.
Another typically unforeseen problem of over scheduling? A frazzled parent. When “much of parent-child time is spent arranging special activities or transporting children between those activities,” valuable moments of bonding can get thrown to the wayside.
How We Can Encourage More Free Playtime
It shouldn’t be too difficult to encourage a child to play—after all, it’s in their DNA! However, if you have an older child, it is a big challenge to encourage a child to put down electronic devices and go outside to play.
To start, ensure you have playtime equipment to encourage spontaneous playtime. “Gus” the Climb-N-Crawl Caterpillar provides irresistible active fun opportunities for youngsters, and can be moved inside or outside. It’s a great way to spark imaginative playtimes. Invest in a Buccaneer Boat or a Country Estate play home to encourage kids to play pretend.
Once you have your play areas set up, feel free to join your child in playtime without an end goal or agenda—playtime just for the fun of it. You’d be surprised to see how much your child learns and grows on their own when you add in unstructured playtime (and how much less stress you feel)!