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  • Alice Hill

Why free play is best

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

Free play

As parents, we are pressured to squeeze as many structured activities and lessons into the weekly schedule as time and money allows, and not to mention from the youngest age possible. After all, we want to make sure they are ‘school ready’, right? It may come as a surprise that the very best opportunity for brain development is as simple as allowing our children to take the lead…

What is free play?

Free play happens when play is led by the child. Free play occurs at the child’s pace, and for no other reason than that the child wants to be playing. Rather than providing structured activities with rules, free play involves sitting back and allowing the child to choose what they want to play with and how they want to play with it. It is more about the process than the outcome. Babies and children of any age are capable of free play*.

How can free play enhance your child’s development?

Free play allows children to explore their passions and interests. It fosters creativity and facilitates the development of decision-making skills. Playing in groups provides the opportunity to develop leadership and negotiation skills, resolve conflicts, and share. Free play essentially provides the opportunity for children to develop emotional intelligence.

Free play also allows the greatest opportunity for ‘neuroplasticity’, which is the ability of the brain to change and learn. Neuroplasticity is enhanced when the child is interested in and focused on what they are doing, so a child-led play helps to enhance the opportunity for learning.

Why are many children engaging in less free play?

Nowadays, many children are engaging in less free play. There are several factors that have led to a decrease in free play. As parents, we are also exposed to many marketing messages that tell us that we need to actively build our children’s skills through structured activities from an early age for them to become academically successful. Furthermore, children are spending more time being passively entertained by screens and less time playing.

In our grandparents generation, it was more common for one parent to stay at home with the children while the other worked. These days, most parents work, so there is less time where children are playing freely at home on weekdays with adult supervision. Most children attend childcare programs or after school activities. While some programs are advanced in their approach to learning, there are many programs that offer very structured activities for young children at the expense of free play.

How can free play benefit your relationship with your child?

Playing with your child enables you to enter their world and discover their interests and passions. It also helps you to learn how to communicate more effectively with them. Engaging in free play also shows your child that you are paying full attention to them, which helps to build a trusting, enduring relationship. Playing with your child provides another setting to offer gentle guidance.

Free play also gives parents of children who are not yet talking an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of their child’s perspective, as the child may be able to express their emotions more effectively through play.

Tips to encourage free play

  • Watch and wait for your child to show you what they are interested in

  • Comment on what they are doing to show them you are paying attention

  • Offer encouragement, but resist the temptation to give instruction or take over

  • Vary the setting in which play takes place. Play in different rooms at home, and go to different outdoor locations.

  • Give your child some time to play on their own as well as time where they play with you

  • Offer your child different objects to play with, but let them decide how to play with them. You don't need to buy expensive toys. A cardboard box can be a great idea for a pre-schooler. It could become a cubby house, a castle, a garage, or anything else they want it to be!

*The play activities a child chooses will differ according to their age or developmental stage. For example, a baby might play by shaking a rattle, whereas a pre-schooler is more likely to engage in make-believe play. The play is considered to be ‘free’ or ‘unstructured’ when it is led by the child, regardless of their age.


Hampton, D (2015) Neuroplasticity: The 10 fundamentals of rewiring your brain, retrieved 19.12.16 from

Ginsburg, KR (2012). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds, Pediatrics, vol. 119, no.1, pp. 182-191, DOI 10.1542/peds.2006-2697.

Hurwitz, S.C. (2002). To be successful – let them play! Childhood Education, vol 79, no. 2, pp 101-102.

Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York: Viking.

Goldstein, J. (2012). Play in children’s development, health and wellbeing. Accessed 21.12.16 from

Tonkin, A. (2014). Play in healthcare: using play to promote child development and wellbeing. Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from

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