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43 Ways our Kids Thrive on Free Play

Written by Neve Spicer - WeThe Parents


Is your child getting enough ‘free play’?

Child-led free play – the unstructured time during which children can act out their fantasies, create their own rules and explore the world at their own pace – profoundly benefits their early development.

But here’s the thing:

While experts agree that undirected play is vital, it is disappearing in favor of organized athletic, artistic, and academic activities. In moderation, these structured classes can be enriching, but ditching playtime all together comes at a cost to a child’s growth and wellbeing.


As you consider and plan your child’s weekly routine, here are 43 vital reasons to prioritize and safeguard free play.

In this article:

Let’s take a closer look…

Character and personality

Brain & Mind

Physical development

Emotional & social skills

Academic performance

Over-scheduled and over-entertained Kids

Let’s take a closer look…

From the cognitive to the physical, research shows that free play can allow our little ones to gain self-confidence, promote neurological development, and even enhance their fine motor skills.

Let’s dive in and take a closer look at why child-development experts recommend that screen time and structured learning ought to make way for more opportunities to play:


Character and personality

1. Boosts confidence and self-esteem

Free play involves every part of a child’s being; mind, body, and soul. Through this playstyle, kids are able to naturally explore their physicality as well as engage in independent learning. The result is a child who is building their confidence, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and empowering their potential as human beings, all while having fun. (Source / Source / Source)

2. Teaches the ability to recover quickly from setbacks

A child might be frustrated when the last block they are stacking topples their masterpiece or upset when the red marker runs dry and that apple on the page must be colored a different shade. These are necessary experiences for healthy brain development, and low-stakes situations like these are the perfect time for your kiddo to learn how to bounce back from disappointment or change things up and still be happy with the end result. (Source)

3. Helps with overcoming emotional trauma or disturbance

Fantasy play, or role-play, enables young ones to uncover, address, and articulate any distressing feelings and/or conflicts. Some psychoanalysts believe that the skills built from the play are essential for the cognitive development that is needed to process a particularly traumatizing event. (Source)

4. Grows personal resilience

Free play is rife with opportunities for children to learn about social skills, including idea sharing, self-control, and even how to handle exclusion and power dynamics within a group. It also teaches them how to regulate their own emotions while becoming sensitive to the values and needs of their peers. Figuring out how to deal with disappointing, different, or frustrating group dynamics in a healthy and productive way will benefit children for their entire lives. (Source / Source)

5. Reduces childhood stress and anxiety

Research suggests that over-protection from having ever been exposed to risk-taking activities can actually increase a child’s anxiety all the way into adulthood. Because free play inherently encourages a level of risk-taking with relatively low stakes, it is the perfect opportunity for children to get these experiences under their belts.

Another aspect of free play that can lower stress is imaginary friends, especially when it comes to boys; they tend to have a decreased level of fear and anxiety during later play sessions. (Source / Source)

6. Increases empathy

Through imaginary play, children can put themselves in all sorts of situations, thus exploring new roles and the feelings that come with them. By engaging in free play with their friends, their cooperation, sharing, helping, and empathy skills will grow by the game. (Source)

7. Encourages expression of views, experiences, and frustrations

Free play provides us with a wonderful window into the minds of our children. It is an excellent way for our kids to express safely, both to their parents and to themselves, what they are feeling. Even when their language isn’t quite at a level to articulate their fears, excitements, or opinions, the type of free play they engage in will speak volumes. (Source)

8. May lead to the discovery of interests and life passions

Psychologist Peter Gray makes a strong case in favor of incorporating free time into our kids’ lives, contending that it allows children to cultivate their own interests and passions in a way that strictly regimented schedules do not. Without the structure of preplanned events, activities, or lessons, children will inevitably experience and, more importantly, find ways to overcome boredom. Where that takes them could be something they fall in love with for life. (Source)


9. Nurtures a sense of self and place in the world

Free play has a way of fostering our children’s ability to grow as people, often by merely expanding on that which they have previously learned. Whether they are honing their skills in problem-solving, communicating their wants, or just discovering that those blocks are made for more than knocking over, play can be a great foundation on which to build a sense of self. (Source)

10. Outdoor play develops respect for nature

Is there a better arena for playtime than the great outdoors? Hardly, and not just because when our kiddos take the mess outside it means less vacuuming for us. Playing outside can allow children to develop greater respect and understanding of mother nature. (Source)


11. Trains children to recognize and avoid potentially dangerous situations

We need our kids to be able to identify a situation that is genuinely threatening, whether it is on the playground or in their future adult lives. Many experts believe that this ability starts young, and comes from the type of risk-taking and self-challenges that occur during free play. (Source)


12. Inspires exploration of the world

Encouraging strong bonds within our families is essential, but so is teaching our children how to play away from their parental figures. Much to our motherly chagrin, our kids need to stretch their independence so that they can confidently explore their world, and free play is an excellent way for them to do so. (Source)


13. Reduces or conquers fears

The risk-taking that occurs in play is, in some ways, a mirror of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Both teach children how to engage in less negative thinking regarding their anxieties, thus reducing maladaptive behavior in stressful situations. Studies show that imaginary friends can also reduce stress in both boys and girls, so by all means, set an extra place at the table for the unseen Annie or Andrew. (Source)


14. Allows children to practice for adult roles

Roleplay can provide children the room to explore situations well above their pre-school pay grade and, in turn, prepare them for their futures as adult members of society. Whether they pretend to be chiefs, doctors, cops, or astronauts, this type of sociodramatic play enables them to try on more mature personas, along with all the trappings that come with such a position. (Source)


15. Provides feedback on beliefs about the world

Free play can teach a child that fitting a round block into a square hole will be tricky, if not impossible, no matter how much they push. While this example is a little rudimentary, it demonstrates one way that free play is showing our kids that sometimes things are the way they are and you will need to change your strategy to solve a problem, regardless of your wants or beliefs. (Source)


16. Expands the ability to consider others’ viewpoints

Perhaps one of the most natural lessons our children learn from fantasy play is how to put themselves in another person’s shoes. As they role play, they explore the world from different viewpoints and can even mentally traverse cultures and boundaries beyond their everyday experiences. (Source / Source)


Brain & Mind

17. Develops cognitive abilities

Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget, two of the most renowned psychologists of the 20th century, believed play to be a pivotal part of cognitive development. While further study is needed for definitive results, modern research suggests that play can help increase neural structures, assist in learning, and may even help children cope with complex mental health issues. (Source / Source)

18. Improves decision-making skills

As our children engage in what might look like silly games to us, they are actually honing their ability to pick between several options. While playing, they are independently practicing their decision-making skills, something that will go on to enhance their ability to make choices. (Source / Source)

19. Increases creativity

Compared to activities that were not initiated by children, child-led play, specifically social-fantasy play, was shown to support the creative imaginations of youngsters. This creativity can, in turn, make a boring task meaningful, even fun, and give a child a sense of control and contribution to their world. (Source / Source / Source)

20. Nurtures imagination

One can argue that playfulness and imagination go hand in hand. The more a child is allowed to play, the more they can enact their fantasies to make the impossible become possible. This leads to a healthy exploration of the world, as well as a creative way to regard and use ordinary objects. (Source)

21. Supports learning readiness

Studies have demonstrated a positive relationship when it comes to the act of play and a student’s learning ability, with some researchers concluding that the primary mechanisms supporting a child’s ability to learn are acquired through social relationships, including those between peers. It’s worth noting that free play encourages such interactions. (Source, Kumar & Harizuka, 1998; Lieberman, 1977)

22. Boosts problem-solving skills

Children experience an increase in their abilities to solve problems when allowed to play games and complete puzzles. On the other side of the spectrum, children rendered unable to engage in creative play, such as those who have experienced trauma, lack the capacity to fully access their problem-solving skills. (Source / Source)


23. Promotes free and flexible thinking

Free play strips away all rules, expectations, and time frames, encouraging our kids to think for themselves. Play can be quiet and solitary or loud and social; a child engaging in creative play assumes total control over the type of games they are creating. When not bound by adult-set rules, they are free to manipulate their environment in unique ways. (Source / Source)


24. Enhances language development

When a child participates in social play, they will find themselves both listening to and mimicking the way language is used by others. Some assert that this type of play enhances a child’s vocabulary, with researcher Sara Smilansky asserting that fantasy play will aid in both speech and language development. (