Children learn best through play. The importance of play in early childhood cannot be overstated. During play, kids learn without even realizing they’re doing so. Their competency in completing tasks improves. And since play is fun, they can repeat and practice their new skills without the pressures of a formal learning environment.
Kids need to move as movement is vital for physical wellness, strength, and brain development. As they move, they learn to control their large muscles of the arms, legs, and torso and develop fine motor skills like finger manipulation.
To ensure they gain the maximum benefit from playing, children should ideally participate in unstructured, semi-structured, and structured activities.
What is free play?
Free play, also known as unstructured play, occurs when children are allowed to play in any way they see fit within a safe and appropriately supervised environment. Children have autonomy in the play process and can make the rules and decide what and how they will play. Free play is lots of activities with very little structure.
As kids move beyond the toddler years and begin to expand their social circles, we need to provide them with several opportunities to interact with their peers. Playdates and preschools give them a chance to interact in different environments. The opportunities usually involve free play or loosely structured play.
Wherever children are free to play, they do.— Peter Gray
The importance of free play for kids
With children having higher expectations of achievement placed on them than ever before, it’s crucial to provide a balance by giving children opportunities to play, explore, and engage without competition.
Kids get exposed to technology at an increasingly early age. Although there are significant benefits to technology, you need to balance this with activities their bodies require to develop physically and cognitively.
In free play, participation is intrinsically motivated. This means that your child wants to participate because it provides them with enjoyment and pleasure without the need for any external motivation.
Through free play, kids develop coordination, balance, and control. They master skills such as crossing the midline (moving their arms and legs to the other side of their body), which is vital for reading and writing activities.
As children learn how to balance, they’re developing the core muscles they will need to sit in the classroom and strengthening the muscles required for good posture. As they learn to recognize where their bodies are in relation to other things, they become more competent and less clumsy.
Benefits of free play
Free play gives kids the chance to play and move just for the sake of doing so. When your child plays without rules or direction, they’re able to explore and move in ways that feel comfortable for them. Kids can be creative and push their boundaries without being dictated to by adults. In so doing, they can establish what they’re capable of.
Unstructured play may also provide benefits such as:
- Collaborative skills: Free play offers opportunities for willing collaboration between peers.
- Better communication: Playing without adult interference provides children with chances to practice their communication skills. They get to choose what and how to play, set rules, learn to compromise, express their views and opinions, learn how to read non-verbal cues, and assign roles.
- Critical thinking skills: Free play gives your child the chance to ask questions, consider outcomes, and analyze information. Critical thinking forms the foundation for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects.
- Expanded content knowledge: As kids engage, observe, and learn, they have the chance to master what they’ve already learned and expand their knowledge in a real-world context.
- Opportunities for creative innovation: As children develop cognitively, they begin to play more abstractly. These opportunities for imaginative and out-the-box thinking are a starting point for creative innovation.
- Increased self-confidence: Free play gives kids the chance to experiment, try new things, make mistakes, and try again. Children learn to take calculated risks when given the room to test their abilities and boundaries.
Let kids play freely
Even as social scientists recognize the importance of play in child development, children have fewer opportunities to play. Kids have less free time available to them than children in previous generations. With safety concerns of play environments and additional social and economic factors playing a significant role, free play has also decreased significantly.
Organizations such as the Lego Learning Institute have found that many parents view unstructured play as time wasted. Such flawed perception has also contributed to some kids not being afforded the development and learning opportunities of free play.
This is why we should let kids be kids. Encourage them to participate in free play whenever we can. Sometimes incorporating free play into organized sports is also a good idea. They get the full experience and maximum benefits as they grow. You may also want to consider sending your kids to a play based preschool.