For lots of reasons - the busyness of after-school activities, the prevalence of technology, parents micro-managing their children’s time, health and safety concerns, society’s view of what a ‘good’ parent is, the hothousing of kids and emphasis on academic learning and so on - we’ve seen a lessening of free play in the last 15-20 years.
Experts see this as a negative thing and are calling for a return to free play (loosely defined as ‘risky’, unstructured play with natural or re-purposed objects) because of its importance in emotional, physical and social development.
Evidence suggests free play develops independence, fosters resilience, teaches children about risk management (important if they’re to avoid real risk in the future), fosters creativity and builds confidence. More research is needed, but free play also seems to lead to better learning, better behaviour and greater brain development.
What’s not to love?!
Top 5 Tips
1. Remember that as parents, our perception of risk is a lot higher than actual risk.
2. Encourage free play by making sure your child has plenty of free time with nothing scheduled. Create an environment where they can play freely or bring them somewhere where this can happen, e.g. the beach. Then sit back and wonder at their creativity and imagination.
3. If you’re wondering what constitutes free play, think of the acronym, ‘T.H.R.E.E.S’. Children love Tools (adult tools, such as hammer and nails); Heights (such as climbing trees); Rough and tumble (e.g. playfighting with dad); Exploration (independent exploration where they can find their own path and hiding places etc.); Elements (natural elements such as mud, water, fire and sand); and Speed (go-karts, bikes etc.).
4. If your child is doing something you think is risky, stop and consider whether it could be good for them. Could you let the play go a little bit further before stepping in?
5. Try not to worry about what other people think. Be confident in your decision to allow your child to reap the benefits of free play.