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Guest Post: Something for Nothing - The Value of Free Play

Free play, or unstructured play is when children are allowed to direct play themselves, engaging in activities of interest to themselves, and as much as is possible, resolving conflict on their own.
Dec 18, 2016 | Du La

Note from Joy: I was so happy to read this article from Du because it immediately made me feel less mom-guilt! I've noticed that Vienna is perfectly happy to play in her bedroom or look at books by herself. But it's not uncommon for 30-45 minutes to go by where she is completely immersed in playing by herself. After reading this article, I know this is beneficial for her development. Phew!

Free play, or unstructured play is when children are allowed to direct play themselves, engaging in activities of interest to themselves, and as much as is possible, resolving conflict on their own.

If you noticed there is no mention of parental involvement in the above description: it’s because there wasn’t.

Free play, or simply “playing”, is an activity that in many circles of contemporary parenting is considered of little value, and a relative waste of time when compared to more structured activities such as getting a head-start on learning letters and numbers, engagement in a musical activity of some nature, or Mandarin lessons.

Research (and much writing) is now demonstrating that this view, of unstructured, “idle” time being of no value to children’s development, is deeply flawed, and that letting children “figure it out” is an outstanding developmental tool.

What are the benefits of free, unstructured play?

Letting children direct their own activities has a range of physical, cognitive and social benefits.

When children play without parental interference, they tend to be more active than when parents actively direct activity. Parental involvement is well-intentioned, in the interest of safety, but often parents “take it too far”, limiting opportunities to climb and run (to prevent falls), play in wooded areas (to prevent cuts and becoming dirty), and so on.

Research confirms that although without parental interference injuries do occur slightly more often, the injuries are by-and-large minor in nature, but with the trade-off of reduced levels of physical activity. In the context of the fact that only 9% of Canadian children meet research-based physical activity guidelines, and our knowledge of the role of physical activity in preventing obesity and a wide-range of other health conditions, maximizing children’s activity levels, and interest in an active lifestyle is of great value.

Cognitively and socially, allowing children to self-determine what type of activity they participate in, and resolve playtime conflicts on their own helps in development of a wide range of “executive functions”. Executive functions are cognitive skills, including ability to organize and plan; regulate behaviour and assess risk; and get started on, and move between tasks. These are obviously important skills for adjustment to a school environment, and indeed, are predictors of success in school, health and wealth.
In a nutshell, free, unstructured play:

  • Optimizes children’s activity levels
  • Increases their interest in physical activity (when parents discourage children from every “risky” behaviour, it reduces the perception of fun had in physical play), which bodes well for lifetime interest in being active
  • Improves academic performance
  • Decreases aggressive behaviour
  • In general, is linked to greater success in life
  • Is free in dollar and convenience cost (i.e., no driving to lessons on a deadline)
  • Allows parents to be less intensely involved in their children’s leisure, allowing time to re-connect with each other


So, how do we do it?

It’s as easy as doing nothing (almost literally).

In our home, although heavily scheduled as many are with birthday parties, and pursuing our children’s interests, we try to reserve time for “idle activity”.

We schedule only one extra-curricular activity for each of our children at any one time, and try, as much as is possible, to reserve one day of each week-end as a “family day”, to be used in unstructured leisure.

In the routine of our lives, we try to remain “hands-off”. After school in the schoolyard, we refrain from intervening immediately to restrict mildly risky behaviours, allowing our children to explore and challenge themselves.


At home, we do not allow screen time on weekdays. Although many parents are concerned that without a screen to occupy their children they will not be able to get any of their own work done, our children are used to playing together, or alone (in itself an important skill). The transition to less screen time will not be easy, but in our opinion, is worth it.

At home (and less so with other peoples children), we wait before interjecting to mediate interpersonal conflict.

Lastly, rather than always using leisure time in structured activities (e.g., trips to the zoo, art gallery, etc.), we may go to the park. We let the kids roam free and explore, and we spend time together, which, as otherwise very busy parents and professionals, helps strengthen our relationship.

They say you don’t something for nothing, but sometimes you get a lot.

Dec 18, 2016 BY Du La
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