The Benefits of Free Play


Growing up, I enjoyed my free time playing outside with children from the neighborhood. Times do change, but I wonder why I see less children playing outside?

Searching for news articles about free play I came across one from Washington’s Top News titled, “Study: Despite known benefits, kids are playing less.” (You can read it here) The article refers to a study from the toy company Melissa and Doug about how children spend their free time. A very insightful study you can read for yourself by following the link in above-mentioned article.

In my search, I found parents have concerns about safety, weather, and whom their children are playing with. When I was young we compensated for these challenges by wearing jackets when it was cold and less clothing when it was hot. The friends I played with were from our neighborhood and my parents asked to meet them or met them as we ran through the house to refuel before going back outside to play more. Safety in some areas of the country is a real concern, but overall, times are safer than they have ever been.

The survey from Melissa and Doug contained some interesting revelations. The first is that parents believe organized activities are more beneficial in teaching children the skills they consider important for development and becoming successful adults. The same parents responded that their children spend 18.6 hours per week interacting with screens and 10.6 hours playing outside. The survey did not share if outside play included children engaged in organized activities like sports. 

My neighborhood has many children. I see them walking to school and they visited the house last week for Halloween. On occasion, I see a few children riding bikes or skateboarding. In my small sample size I am not seeing children playing outside for 10.6 hours per week. 

Lastly, the survey reported that skills parents want their children to acquire most are self-confidence, social skills, and academic skills. Furthermore, the parents did not believe free play enhanced these skills enough to make it a priority. Through observation as a school-age practitioner, I have witnessed how free play enhances the three skills parents in the survey want their children to acquire. 

Children gain self-confidence in free play by experimenting, following interests, and figuring out problems on their own or in small groups. When children have time to explore questions and execute ideas through trial and error the process is educational, gratifying, and boosts confidence as new skills are acquired. Free play is a continuous cycle of investigation, trial, and discovery for children.

Social skills are the backbone of free play. This is where children learn how to work with others and how to read social cues. All play young children engage in involves negotiation and lessons in compromise. In playgroups, children never get everything they want it is a process of collaboration, give and take. This is what creates a social circle and lasting friendships. Social skills developed through free play are skills that are used for a lifetime and begin to develop in the youngest of children.

Academic skills are more than organized remembering and regurgitating of facts, figures, and repeated actions. The knowledge children gain in school has a purpose to be applied at a future date to do something. Get a job, build a house and make a life. Well, the best place to apply the knowledge gained in school and make it stick is through free play. The school of applied knowledge is the space where children take the knowledge they learn from books and apply it to real world problems. Free play is filled with challenges, creativity, and opportunity to put these nuggets of knowledge to work. 

Right now, there is a wave of discussion about the benefits of free play and the beginnings of a movement to bring free play back into the mainstream. There are many articles and posts on social media about the subject. Will this new interest spark a movement and I will once again see children riding their bikes and making noise throughout the neighborhood? If not, then we all will get to read another study about the results of having a generation that spends most of their time indoors, interacting with screens actively or passively and what type of society that produces in the future.

How much time in organized activities versus free play do children in your program participate in each week?