Free Play Time: Why Your Child Needs More

April 1, 2020 // by Laura Malone

We’re entering our third week of social distancing in our neck of the woods. The first week and a half was surreal. Our busy lives came to a screeching halt as the news and social media filled our minds with a new script that will no doubt make history. It feels a little like we’re living in one of those long, dark nights where we toss and turn uncomfortably and stare at the ceiling, searching for the first hint of daybreak, but it never seems to come. We know it will, but what do we do with our TIME while we wait?

I think we should PLAY!

Yes, the stress, panic and inconvenience that COVID-19 has unleashed in our world has been tough. Not being able to visit and hug family and friends has been depressing, but I have to admit, the slow life is starting to grow on me. We’re still homeschooling during the day as usual, but our evenings are empty and after a few spells of anxiety, I’m finally settling into this cozy nest of ours. I’ve had time to think and refocus and I’m looking up. God has promised to work in our trials and I’m seeing it now. He has gifted all of us with something we’ve all been complaining we don’t have enough of – TIME.

Time with our families,

time to snuggle up and read books,

time to enjoy the expressions on their faces,

time to listen to their long, silly stories,

and time to PLAY!

What boy doesn’t love mud?

One of the healthiest things you can do for your child is give them time for free play. Playtime is not wasted time, it’s growing time. Free play allows children to learn and grow socially, physically and mentally in ways that they cannot grow with guided learning and activities led by adults. It’s so important that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that doctors write prescriptions for play time.

Let’s begin by taking a look at how free play has evaporated over time in American culture. Let’s learn why it’s so important to children’s health and make a plan to use this TIME that God has given us to rethink our “normal” day-to-day lives and find ways to incorporate free play.

Play is training for the unexpected.

Marc Bekoff, Contemporary American biologist

American Philosophy of a Great Education

Out of love and an effort to make sure our children are fully equipped for life beyond childhood, we’ve been taught that the only way for them to be successful is for parents to take the reins in their lives. We have ideals in our mind of what would certify our child as officially successful and then we read books of things WE need to do to ensure they get there. We (parents, teachers, coaches) take complete control over children’s schedules each day and constantly look for teaching moments. If they get any play time, it’s often through organized sports or it’s thoughtfully guided by well-meaning parents with wonderful creative ideas. These are good things but they’re not free play.

We may not say it, but we believe that free play time is wasted time and frankly, there’s no time to waste. They’ll be graduating and living on their own before we know it.

Despite our well-intentioned momma hearts and countless hours of hard work, if we’re like most American parents, we’re still depriving our child of this one very important biological need of free play. Research shows that you can give them the best teachers, coaches, assignments, schedules, activities and opportunities, but if they’re deprived of adequate amounts of self-directed free play, they suffer socially, mentally and emotionally. It’s a crucial piece of the child-development puzzle and ironically, its importance was lost in our efforts toward better education.

Wrestling Time

It is in playing and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.

D. W. Winnicott, British pediatrician

What is Free Play?

Free play is any indoor or outdoor activity that is motivated by the child with the mental attitude of curiosity, interest and enjoyment. It’s self-chosen and self-directed. It has structure and rules dictated by the child. It’s a child using their imagination with a carefree mindset. It is not parent or teacher-directed activities. It’s not playing on a sports team or following a set of rules for an experiment or craft. It is not a circumstance where the child has any sense of being evaluated, critiqued or rewarded for performance. It is simply a child being allowed the TIME to survey their options, choose an activity that pleases them, make up the rules and have fun.

Free play is when a child practices important skills they’ve seen modeled in everyday life.  Since the beginning of time, children of all countries and cultures have had a drive to play and their play typically mimics activities that are most valued by adults present in their environment.

Free play is a basic biological drive given to children by God with the purpose of enjoyment as well as developing optimal mental, emotional and physical health. Because of the overwhelming evidence discovered by scientists over the past forty years, in 1989, the United Nations adopted an international treaty which states, “Every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child, and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.”

Working on their fossil excavation kit before lunch.

How Does the U.S. Measure Up?

Is our culture reflecting the belief that we have a fundamental responsibility to honor children’s basic right and biological need for free play? In the U.S., free play hours have been on a continual decline since the introduction of compulsory education and attendance laws in the U.S. in 1852.  From 1981 to 1997, children’s playtime decreased by 25% and 30% of kindergarten children no longer have recess. It has been replaced by academic lessons. According to the CDC, only 24% of children in the U.S. ages 6-17 get at least 60 minutes of play time a day.

What is contributing to the decrease in play time? To sufficiently prepare children for adulthood, American parents and teachers schedule and control most hours of a child’s day. Guided learning through lessons taught by parents or teachers at school and extracurricular activities are seen as the best and only way a child can get a satisfactory education and be prepared for the real world. But studies are showing that this highly-controlled learning environment throughout childhood is creating socially and mentally handicapped young adults. Parents working outside the home, worry about safety and the increase of media usage (4.5 hours of media per day on average) are also contributors.

Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.

Kay Redfield Jamison, American professor of psychiatry
Sunset landscape chalk art in the afternoon.

Negative Effects on Children

Let’s look at the correlation between the decrease in free play hours for children over the years and the effect it has had on their mental health development according to psychologists:

  • Over the past 50 years, psychologists are reporting an increase in the number of young adults that can’t find their purpose in life or set goals for themselves and achieve them.
  • Studies have shown that children who are shuttled from one organized activity to another throughout the week are most likely to feel anxious or depressed.  The diagnosis of anxiety in young people has increased 17% over the past ten years and 8.4% of children are diagnosed with depression at age 13 with 15.4% respectively at age 18 according to the Child Mind Institute. As a matter of fact, anxiety and depression were lower among children during the Great Depression and World War II than they are now. Why? Young people feel more out of control in today’s world than they ever have – because they are. Adults control all aspects of their learning, playing, eating and sleeping.  It’s hard to be happy when you feel like your life is not what you chose.
  • Narcissistic behavior has increased. Psychologists report that young adults take less responsibility for themselves, others and their communities. They believe they are victims and never the cause of negative outcomes.
  • Constant control suppresses the spirit of a child. They begin feeling hopeless and doubt their own abilities to make sound judgements. If the people who love them don’t believe they can make wise choices, why should they believe that they can? Children also lose touch with what they love and enjoy, because without free play they don’t have the opportunity to be curious, explore and dive into what interests them.
  • Creativity and critical thinking are lost. When a child’s learning only comes from adult-led activities, they naturally believe there is only one way to solve a problem (the adult’s way). They believe if they don’t follow the exact steps, they’ll fail. Their brains become reliant on instructions and they have a hard time thinking outside the box and solving real-life problems when they aren’t given a set of steps.
Enjoying the spring weather.

“Learning is best fueled by tapping into a child’s natural urge to play, rather than just outside factors like test scores. As they actively engage with and joyfully discover their world, children gain 21st century skills that increasingly call for teamwork and innovation.”

The Power of Play – How Fun and Games Help Children Thrive. American Academy of Pediatrics.

Benefits of Free Play

Now, let’s look at the benefits of free play so we can understand why, despite our hard efforts as parents, many children aren’t flourishing at real-life skills in adulthood. Some of these skills that children acquire in free play can’t be learned in parent or teacher-guided activities.

Here are a few benefits of Free Play.

  • According to the AAP clinical report, The Power of Play, children’s play is not frivolous. “Rather, play is brain building, a central part of healthy child development, a key to executive function skills, and a buffer against the negative impacts of stress.”
  • Children learn how to self-educate. This is an invaluable skill necessary not only for future careers, but also for doing anything new in life such as getting married, raising a family, fixing things around the house, exploring a new hobby or traveling around the world.
  • They learn how to self-regulate impulses and emotions such as anger and fear. Conflict with playmates enables them to practice controlling their anger. They’ll learn that frequent fits and outbursts will diminish the number of playmates willing to tolerate them. Likewise, children naturally create pretend fearful situations such as running from a “shark” while playing tag and hiding from “enemy fire” while playing nerf war.  The more practice they have with these emotions in a safe environment, the more prepared they will be when they occur in real life.  Studies show that cultures where children have the greatest freedom to play also have the greatest ability for self-control.
  • Children learn how to be creative and think critically. This is key to independent problem solving.
  • They also learn how to take charge of their own lives by giving them the opportunity to make their own decisions and face the benefits or consequences of their actions in a safe environment. Since they are the ones who made the decision, they learn they are responsible for the outcomes.
  • Children learn how to be independent. They are not helpless. They can and should have some control over their lives.
  • They learn how to create, evaluate and abide by rules. When they have the opportunity to create their own rules, this gives them a respect for the rule-making process and an appreciation for the value in following rules. This can produce informed and action-oriented citizens.
  • They gain Social skills. They learn how to get along, negotiate, debate and compromise with playmates.
  • Children learn how to discover what they love and learn more about it.
  • They believe that learning is fun when they’re diving into their interests. This creates a positive, motivated attitude toward learning that produces lifelong learners.
  • Children gain improved physical coordination and control through activities such as wrestling, chase, sword fighting and impromptu sports games.

When children pretend, they’re using their imaginations to move beyond the bounds of reality. A stick can be a magic wand. A sock can be a puppet. A small child can be a superhero.

Fred Rogers
These are a few treasures they found under the rocks in the backyard. They added earthworms and spiders after I took the picture.

Flipping our Mindset about Free Play

How enjoyable is life for a college student, young married person or new mom or dad if they can’t make decisions for themselves, get along with others, control their emotions, take responsibilities for their choices or even know what makes them happy? When the younger generations are healthy, they represent the group of people that are the best at taking risks, thinking outside the box and bravely improving on the efforts of the earlier generations.  What is a nation without them?

In my opinion, these skills are far more beneficial in life than memorizing detailed facts about history and science. They’re more important than learning how to diagram sentences or spell all the biology terms. Yes, those are nice things to learn and they’ll help us pass tests, but how many of us have really used those facts in our adult lives? Most of the information learned in school from adults really only applies to a sliver of the American population in adulthood. So, why do we focus most of the hours in our child’s days on learning these things?

Free play isn’t silly, wasted time. It’s vital to their healthy development. And the great news is, if we flip our mindset on this biological necessity, we are not only giving our children exactly what they need to be mentally, socially and emotionally healthy adults, we are relieving ourselves from the heavy burden of controlling every hour of their lives. We can relax. God has created children with an innate drive to play freely because it is vital to them becoming the adult that God created them to be. Trust Him and trust your child.

Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play, children learn how to learn.

O. Fred Donaldson, American martial arts master
He’s smiling now, but when it worked its way up his arm he quickly said, “OK I’m done.”

Incorporating Free Play

So, how do we make this happen? Well, right now, with the whole country shut down, it’s not hard.  Most of us have TIME. But we know this won’t last forever, so how can we incorporate this into life after COVID-19?

Some of you might be thinking, “Laura, I totally agree they need more free play time, but you don’t understand. My child goes to public school and I have no control over their schedule.” If changing to a school with a philosophy that matches yours or switching to homeschooling isn’t an option for your family, then improve what you can. Take a look at their afternoon hours. What extracurricular activities can be cut? If you discuss it with your child, they might be eager to drop some activities.

Maybe you’re thinking, “I homeschool and we’d never get through all the days planned out in our curriculum if I scheduled in free play time.” Maybe, but you’re the teacher. You are not bound to the curriculum (in most states). It should be your guide, not your mandate. Rearrange or cut lessons according the needs of your child. It’s worth it!

Here are some things to consider as you incorporate free play today:

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least one hour of moderate or vigorous physical activity per day for children ages 6 and over. This includes activities such as running, jumping, swimming, walking, riding bikes, dancing and sports.
  • One hour of outdoor time per day is recommended for children and adults by the U.S. National Wildlife Federation.
  • Plan your child’s free playtime like you do their mealtime. Remember, it is a biological necessity, not wasted time. Your mindset should be that it HAS to happen just like eating HAS to happen.
  • Free play can be any combination of physical, social, constructive, exploratory, fantasy or language activities.
  • Free play is child-driven and not parent or teacher-guided. In giving tips to parents and teachers, the AAP states we should focus on playful rather than didactic learning by letting children take the lead and follow their own curiosity. Don’t be tempted to make suggestions on how they play with a toy or game. If they want to microwave the peanut butter and jelly sandwich in their play kitchen, let them. If they are a ninja ballerina that dances and fights simultaneously, don’t tell them ballerinas don’t fight. If they want to read their book while standing on their head, let them. Go paint your nails, they’ll figure it out.
  • Children need free access to play tools and equipment. I’m not talking about expensive electronic toys. Grab extra utensils from your kitchen such as measuring cups, bowls and pans. Keep a pile of empty cardboard boxes in the garage. My kids have decorated them and made houses, forts, stores and baby beds out of these. For 120+ ideas on how to stock the house, subscribe to my weekly newsletter and get my Free Play Supplies List.
  • They need access to safe indoor and outdoor spaces to play and explore. Designate which rooms of the house are available. Don’t forget the garage. (Make sure dangerous objects are stored away). In the winter, I pull my car out to the driveway so they can ride their scooters and set up obstacle courses. Also, if they’re old enough, clearly state their outdoor neighborhood boundaries and then let them roam and explore the neighborhood with their playmates.
  • It’s fine for them to play alone at times, but adding playmates (siblings or friends) enriches their learning. (Of course, siblings will have to do for now while we’re practicing social distancing). Studies show that children can learn a lot from each other. What one child discovers might be different from what another child discovers. When they excitedly share that information with each other, it sticks.
  • Age-mixed play has been proven to be beneficial for all children involved. Older children naturally practice empathy, compassion, nurturing, gentleness and leadership skills when they are with younger children. They are also less competitive and more patient. Young children are challenged in their logical and critical thinking. They also learn new skills and cooperation modeled by older children.
  • Free play should be an evaluation-free zone. Studies show that if a child knows or feels as if they are being evaluated through critique, grades or incentives, anxiety increases. Critical thinking needs creativity which requires a playful state of mind. The playful state of mind shuts down when anxiety is present. Anxiety also causes the brain to send signals down well-worn paths which inhibits new paths necessary for critical thinking. One study was done where children were asked to do a creative task. The children who were told there would be incentives for their creativity had the least creative results. The children that were not expecting incentives had the most creative results. The best creativity is done with the sole goal being to create for the child’s own pleasure and not the pleasure of others. Also, be cautious of your response to their play as not to send a message that they are being judged in any way. Just let them have fun.
  • Access to knowledgeable and trustworthy adults is important. Children need someone available during free play to assist (not lead) with problems, answer questions, get them necessary tools or help them find more information on how to take the next step in what they’re doing, creating or exploring.
  • The best learning and insightful problem solving occurs when children are in good moods. One study showed that 75% of the students that watched a comedy before solving a difficult problem were able to solve it in the allotted time. Of the students that watched a serious film for five minutes before they attempted to solve the problem, only 20% succeeded in the allotted time. Those that watched no film beforehand were less successful with only 13% solving it in the allotted time. A playful state of mind is fertile soil where wonderful learning and problem solving takes root.
Yes, we play in the rain, too.


As we finish up the last couple of months of school in this new world of social distancing and canceled activities, don’t let it unnerve you. Take advantage of it. Plug in their free play time with confidence that it’s not wasted time but growing time.  

If a child has the opportunity to learn the skills that come with free play, then whatever information they need to know for adulthood will come quickly and easily because they will be self-educators and lifelong learners who know how to set effective goals for themselves and achieve them.

What’s more valuable? An adult who has a bunch of facts stored in their brain and knows how to pass tests? Or an adult that is a creative, motivated, critical thinker who takes charge of their life and enjoys it?

Trust God’s design for your child. This might require a shift in your educational, child-rearing philosophy. It’s scary, but you can do it and your child will love it!


Laura ****Don’t forget to sign up for my weekly newsletter in the pop up box to receive your Free Play Supply List containing 120+ ideas to stock your house.****

*Many studies mentioned in this post were gathered from Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn. While I don’t agree with his theology, I found his educational and psychological studies of children very informative.


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