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The Importance of Free Play for Kids

There are big payoffs in letting kids be kids

The Importance of Free Play for Kids, Monday Morning Moms

Few things are more associated with childhood than play, but some kids aren't getting enough free play time. These are times when kids need to use their imagination or enjoy physical activity rather than being coached on a team or watching electronic entertainment, and there are many benefits to this type of simple, unstructured play.

Overscheduled Kids

Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play is so important to optimal child development that it's been recognized by the United Nations as a basic right of every child.1

But with all of the structured activities and the strictly scheduled lives kids often live these days, some are left without any real time to just play. Even when given time to play, they may be too tired after participating in organized activities to take advantage of the opportunity.

There are a host of factors that have led to a decrease in free play time, including a greater emphasis on academic preparation, working parents with little free time to care for children, more electronic screen time, less time spent playing outdoors, perceived risk of play environments, and limited access to outdoor play spaces.

The Importance of Free Play

"Children are designed, by natural selection, to play," wrote Peter Gray, PhD, professor of psychology at Boston College, in the American Journal of Play. "Wherever children are free to play, they do."2 However, the last half-century has seen a decline in kids' opportunities to play. Precisely how fast and how much the opportunity for real free play has declined is difficult to quantify, though historians suggest that the decline has been continuous and great. It has also led to lasting negative consequences.

In that same article, Gray detailed how the lack of play affects emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self-control.

Gray argues that, without play, young people fail to acquire the social and emotional skills necessary for healthy psychological development. 

What Experts Say

In a special report on play, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) outlined a host of payoffs from free play, including that it:3

  • Allows kids to use their creativity and develop their imagination and other strengths

  • Encourages kids to interact with and explore the world around them

  • Helps children adjust to school and enhance their learning readiness, learning behavior, and problem-solving skills

  • Helps kids learn and practice self-regulation

  • Helps kids build decision-making skills

  • Teaches kids to work in groups so they learn to share and resolve conflicts

How to Help Your Child Feel Strong

Of course, free play is also fun, and all that running, biking, and jumping kids often engage in helps build healthy bodies. That's a significant benefit, considering that 20% of American children are obese.4 Many experts attribute the dramatic rise in childhood obesity and the decline in physical fitness at least partly to the decline in outdoor play.

The ability for kids to manage their emotions and behaviors, what experts call emotional regulation, may also be a casualty of too little play—and a factor in the high rate of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Child-Driven Play

Children learn how to regulate fear, anger, and other emotions while playing. This teaches them how to maintain emotional control in threatening and real-life situations, all of which seem to be a strong countervailing force to the impulsivity, hyperactivity, and lack of emotional control that characterize ADHD.

At least one play-based intervention aimed at improving the social play skills of children with ADHD has shown significant success5 by having assigned free-form play-dates under parental supervision among the children, their parents, a designated friend, and that child's parents.

It's important to note that this kind of play is meant to be unstructured, child-driven play. It's not the kind of playtime that's controlled by adults, and it doesn't include passive play, such as sitting in front of a video game, computer, or TV.

Keep in mind that while free play isn't controlled by adults, that doesn't mean you shouldn't supervise your kids while they're playing, especially if they're playing outside.

Examples of Free Play

True free play involves any kind of unstructured activity that encourages children to use their imagination, such as playing with blocks, dolls, and toy cars. It wouldn't include playing with most electronic toys.

A group of kids playing soccer in the backyard together (versus playing on a team with a coach) would be another good example of free play time. This type of active free play is also a good way to help your kids meet their daily physical activity requirements.

More examples of free play include:

  • Drawing, coloring, painting, cutting, and gluing with art supplies

  • Playing make-believe and dress-up

  • Playing on playground equipment, climbing, swinging, running around

  • Reading and looking at books they enjoy, not as part of homework or study

If you're counting on school recess to provide your child with a healthy dose of free play, you may want to rethink that decision.

The length of school recess may be too short to count as free play. In fact, it is rarely mandated at the state level and some schools have eliminated it altogether. And recess is often a very structured event.6

A Word From Verywell

If you're constantly running from activity to activity and your kids are over-scheduled, consider cutting back and adding in some free play. Unstructured play lets your kids explore their imagination and the things around them. In a time when so many parents deal with hectic schedules, it's good to remember the importance of a little free time.

As the AAP notes, some of the best interactions between parents and kids occur during downtime, too. Collaborating on meals, working on a hobby or art project, playing sports together, or even just talking are great ways to bond that don't require money or elaborate planning. Remember, activities don't need to be expensive or exciting to be special.

6 Sources

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. International Play Association. UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Adopted November 20, 1989.

  2. Gray P. The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents. American Journal of Play. 2011;3(4):443-463.

  3. Yogman M, Garner A, Hutchinson J, et al. The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics. 2018;142(3):e20182058. doi:10.1542/peds.2018-2058

  4. Abarca-Gómez L, Abdeen ZA, Hamid ZA, et al. Worldwide trends in body-mass index, underweight, overweight, and obesity from 1975 to 2016: a pooled analysis of 2416 population-based measurement studies in 128·9 million children, adolescents, and adultsLancet. 2017;390(10113):2627-2642. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(17)32129-3

  5. Wilkes-Gillan S, Bundy A, Cordier R, Lincoln M, Chen YW. A randomised controlled trial of a play-based intervention to improve the social play skills of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). PLoS One. 2016;11(8):e0160558. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0160558

  6. Riser-Kositsky M. 7 Things to Know About School Recess. Education Week. July 17, 2018.

Additional Reading

By Vincent Iannelli, MDVincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.

No copyright is claimed in this article and is posted under fair use principles in U.S. copyright laws. If you believe material has been used in an unauthorized manner, please contact us via email.


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