The Importance of "Free Play"

In this busy day and age, it seems that children are signed up and participating in monitored events at a younger and younger age. There is “kiddie” soccer, where 1-2 year olds attempt to stick to the strict rules their instructor sets out for them, children’s art classes where kids are asked to paint a specific sunset, a lake or even a person in front of them. There is less time for the unbridled and untainted joy that can accompany play without the intervention of an adult.

Our advisory board member, Cindy Puccio, has been a therapist working with children for many years and notices that this is an important issue in the development of our kids. In this enlightening interview she discusses what “free play” is and why it is so important to development.

Cindy: These days, it seems as though “free play” is thought of as something to do when there is nothing better to do and our thinking about this should really be just the opposite. During the course of a child’s day, time should actually be set aside for free play as opposed to this idea that a child should “go play” to fill time when nothing else is happening. While it is ironic, in this day and age and in certain family structures, you have to schedule time for unscheduled time. But this is what it has come to. It is difficult for many parents to be confident in and educated about the fact that “free play” is one of the best ways that your child can pass his or her time and that your child needs unstructured, free play time for many critical developmental processes to take root.

It also takes confidence to ignore the comments from children about “being bored” but this is exactly the time when your child is on the verge of being creative, of making their own fun or means of entertainment. Some children who have been grossly overscheduled and over-stimulated now don’t know how to play or to entertainment themselves without a device. They’re constantly barraged with so many things happening to them and around them that they don’t know what to do when there’s not something scheduled for them. We know that creativity comes about during this down time and yet we are so reluctant to encourage it. Creativity is often what emerges when we’re not doing something else; when you have to think on your own or to be inspired by materials and toys that are around you. Most of the time what I’m doing as a clinician is encouraging parents to have the confidence in their own child to know that they don’t need to be engaged in a structured activity when they are not in school. Structure certainly has a time and a place, but it’s not always what we should be aspiring to. I think a lot of parents are anxious that their kids are missing out on something but this is usually wrong.

Meeting House: So with your own children, how do you support this philosophy?

Cindy: It’s difficult. Truthfully, I’m happiest when they making their own fun in the yard or playing some game that they made up and I’m not involved. They will certainly say that they’re bored at times, but I don’t feel compelled as a parent to have a scheduled activity every day for them. I actually feel more anxious as a parent when they’re doing too many things. It is a little bit of working against the norm and the times but after having observed children playing for more than 20 years, there is no doubt in my mind that I am doing my own kids a favor when I tell them to “go play”.  

Meeting House: When you tell parents to stop scheduling kids how do you they react when it is really contrary to our current culture?

Cindy: I think the natural inclination now for parents in certain areas is that scheduling is better, that structure is better, that more is better. I actually believe the opposite is true for child development in general, especially when it comes at the expense of free play and downtime. Unstructured time is crucial for healthy child development. We have to think about the neurological benefits of unstructured time, of allowing our brains to be idle as opposed to supercharged. That’s how I got interested in NPR’s program, “Bored and Brilliant”. I hope that common sense and belief in the well-established fact that, when allowed to do so, children can and will entertain themselves will quell the temptation to over-stimulate and schedule.