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Play is as important to your child’s physical and psychological development as good nutrition is to proper growth. It can be difficult to work out what the best play opportunities for your child are, with so many classes and structured activities available.

As a parent, you also have to combat the growing multitude of screen play options with which your child is inevitably bombarded.

Classes, activities, education and screen time all have a part to play in the healthy development of a child, but free play is just as important and can be much easier to provide.

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

— Kay Redfield Jamison - American clinical psychologist

What is free play?

Simply put, free play is that which is led by the child. Adults may still be involved in the play, but they are not directing the child or making the rules. This can be tricky if adults are involved as children often, naturally, want to please adults and will acquiesce to them. Free play is easiest to achieve with two or more children.

In this situation, children focus on their own area of interest, make their own rules and communicate in their chosen way. They use their imaginations and create their own structures. They may mimic or try out adult roles they have observed. Free play is a great way for children to begin to understand the world around them and it is hugely beneficial.

What are the benefits of free play?

Free play often provides physical exercise and this may be sustained over some time, vitally important in a world where so many children are overweight or in danger of becoming so. It can also be a great chance for kids to practice the physical skills they’ve learnt during structured sports classes. By the same token, observing children during free play can give adults a clue as to what sport or activity they might enjoy learning.

There are other benefits that adult care givers can gain from watching or engaging with children during free play. It can help adults to understand the child better and can give children another way of expressing worries and concerns, especially for children who don’t communicate well verbally.

Social interaction during free play is the best way for children to learn how to communicate, cooperate, deal with conflict, and lead a group. It’s a safe place to learn some very difficult, but vitally important skills. Sharing, turn taking, following and giving instructions are all learnt and practised during play. Problem solving is also a key component of free play and one which comes in very handy when children start school and need to be a little bit more independent.

Finding a balance

Free play is vital to children’s development, but that’s not to say it’s the only activity they need. Sports coaching and other children’s activities are hugely beneficial and can even enrich a child’s free play repertoire. More structured activities provide an enjoyable opportunity to learn physical skills and to practice them.

If you watch your child’s free play after these sessions you will often see skills that your child has learnt being incorporated into the play in ways you might never have expected! Early years teachers are highly skilled at providing play opportunities which will give children a chance to practice skills they have learnt. Outside the classroom, children themselves will find ways of using the skills they’ve learnt without even realising they’re doing it.

The key to successful play is to find the right balance between free and structured play for your child. This will depend very much on your individual child, their stage of development, their interests and their abilities. Most experts agree that the younger the child, the more free play they need, but even teenagers need some undirected time (which you can’t call play in their hearing, but the same principle applies). If your child is enjoying lots of sports coaching and structured activity, don’t cut back, but make sure they also have time for unstructured play time.

Free play is one of the simple joys of childhood and, for that reason, if for no other, should be encouraged. It impacts positively on nearly every element of a child’s development and is so important that the United Nations has declared play to be the right of every child.

That 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. That member governments shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

— Article 31 - United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

As well as being developmentally important, play is fun, so enjoy sharing free play with your child.