The Importance of Free Play

“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” ~ Diane Ackerman

It’s no news that play is very important for children. In fact, it is so important for optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child. It’s their prerogative, a most important job they have – a full-time employment in fun. And it’s the responsibility of us, adults, to let children play. We know that, we do it. However, do children really get enough of free play? 

By definition, free play means giving our children the freedom to be the leaders of their own little world of play, by choosing their own play scenarios, the tools they use, the company they pick, and the way they do it; making up their own story, their own rules, and their own timeline. It is the time where children are the captains, rulers, knights, and our role is to be there as their “not-too-eager” bodyguards, following the situation, keeping the little explorers safe, and supporting them on their quest.

Providing children with enough opportunities to play freely, without us, adults, adding structure, directions, and objective to their play, is one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids – let them be, and the growth will follow. As the developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote: “Play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.” Moreover, scientists say that free play sparks the formation of new neural connections in the prefrontal cortex (the “smarty-pants” of brain parts responsible for thoughts, emotions, and actions in relation to our goals). In addition, free play promotes:

  • Cognitive development: Through free play children use their creativity, they solve problems, they think, create, and experiment. Whether they are artists or performs, scientists or explorers, engineers or architects, they have one thing in common – they are learning – learning about themselves, about others, and the world around them. 

  • Social development: Children learn how to interact with others in a positive way, they learn to understand social cues, value the opinions and feelings of others, they learn to share, work as a team, resolve conflicts, and communicate. Sometimes they are the fearless leaders, and other times their trusted knights. Trying out different roles teaches them about human relationships, and increases empathy.

  • Emotional development: Kids can experiment with emotions though play, they experience and observe different emotions, and learn to recognize them. They learn self-regulation, and by overcoming obstacles, all on their own, they gain self-confidence. 

  • Physical development: As Gill Connell and Cheryl Mccarthy put it: “A moving child is a learning child”. Children tend to be very active when taking part in free play, and nature so masterfully linked physical activity, and brain development. Hand in hand, children move to learn, and learn to move.  Through their countless escapades they develop fine and gross motor skills. Especially when free play takes place in the outdoors, that is when they really get to put all of their bodies (and minds) to work.  

Along with all the glorious benefits free play has for kids, there are perks for adults as well. The most wonderful of all is being granted a window to their remarkable inner world. Letting children take the lead while supporting them in free play gives us a special privilege to experience the world from their perspective, and to truly appreciate our children as they are.  

And finally, the most important benefit of all: free play is fun and allows children to be happy. What more could we wish for?

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