Here's Why You Need to Give Your Child the Gift of Free Play

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Playing is fast becoming a lost art. Sure, we play on our screens, but what about interactive play between children?

Simon Says. Red Rover. Hide-and-Seek. Marco Polo. Have they all been replaced by “Grand Theft Auto” and “Halo”? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not disparaging video games. Children need to play all kinds of games. They also need free play, with and without adults. I mean playing with adults—not under their supervision.

Peter Gray writes,

By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the chance that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and various other mental disorders.

What’s the big difference between the carefree days of the 1950s and ’60s and those of today? Well, namely how children play now versus then. How kids play has dramatically changed. I know, there are some who would argue the reason is because our streets aren’t safe for children to play in the way they once were. While I might debate that another time, for now, let’s assume it’s true. How can we give our children the benefits of old-fashioned playtime?

First, it’s important to understand that different children play in different ways. I know that seems obvious, but it’s not always.

My two youngest boys are a good example. The older, if given any free time, would go out to the tool shed and start building something he’d been daydreaming about. His little brother, on the other hand, would want to play a strategy game. Each one looked at the other like he was dumb for wasting his free time. Both were exercising their talents in free and exploratory ways.

See next page for some ways you can encourage free play in your home.

Here are a few of my favorite ways to encourage free play in children.

  • Costumes. We have a large array of dress-up clothes. Of course, little girls want princess dresses, but don’t stop there. Lion and knight costumes, swords and long dresses—and cowboy hats with red scarves. Raid the costume aisle the first day of November and get a cartload of Halloween costumes for pennies on the dollar.
  • Construction Toys. In my book, a house is not a home for children without construction toys. Legos are great, but don’t forget Lincoln Logs, K’nex, Capsela (these can still be found on eBay).
  • Science Toys. Exploration and free play can also mean collecting: rock collections, butterfly and beetle collections. Throw in a good microscope and you will lose some children for hours exploring the backroads of nature.
  • Art. Never discount the power of good play dough. There’s really no need to buy it anymore. A quick click or two on Pinterest and you’ll find an array of recipes better than anything from the store. Sidewalk chalk is also an inexpensive way to promote the artistic side. And don’t hesitate to have an impromptu game of hopscotch.

While schools are pushing back recess, make it your mission to open the doors to your child’s imagination and all the wonder that comes through the simple act of free play.