Play is gold. Active free play helps children develop physically, become better at self-regulation, and get along well with others. It’s also a boon to parents, if I may say so myself. While we might be tempted to schedule and program our children all summer, a balance of time for free play (whether in a childcare setting that encourages it or with you as a parent) can be extremely valuable. The bumps will be worth it!
Here’s the good news: there are simple strategies that can help children to adjust their routines and develop skills in self-directed free play. Here are five research-backed tips to help your child ease into free play and capture its full potential.
There are going to be times when your children need or want you to join in their play, but before you do, consider saying “not right now” or “I’ll join you in a little while.” Then, try to walk away or be unavailable (keeping safety in mind as needed). If they ask again, calmly and lovingly repeat what you told them, “I will be able to join you in about 20 minutes, but right now I need to clean up the dishes from breakfast.”
It can take time for kids to adapt to being bored and find their own way to be “un-bored,” but they're going to need some time to feel boredom and the desire to resolve it if they are going to learn. In her book Balanced and Barefoot, Angela Hanscom notes that it can take kids a few days to adjust to the entirely unstructured schedule of her summer camps that encourage active outdoor free play, but eventually kids get used to and embrace this freedom.
I know I’m contradicting myself, but both can be valuable! Scientists agree that some play must remain child-driven with parents either not engaged or just watching, but there are also opportunities for parents to reinforce the value of play by getting down on the ground (metaphorically or literally) to show their children it's valuable to them, too.
I know it can sometimes be hard to go along with the game your child has made up, but showing them that they have come up with a really cool solution to entertaining themselves and others can be a powerful reinforcement tool. You can also model creative out-of-the-box thinking while you’re engaged in play. Take a deep breath, call up memories of your own childhood, and dive in (but not all the time). Bonus points if you have some fun, too.
The positive parenting perspective on encouragement versus praise is a great way to look at your role in supporting free play. Try telling your kids what you admire in their free play or asking them questions about what they're doing. Instead of blanket praise like “Good job” or “Thanks for playing by yourself for so long,” use specific encouragement like “Wow, this game really gets us moving – how did you come up with this idea?” or “You worked really hard at this castle, didn’t you? I’m glad you didn’t give up!”
This type of encouragement can reinforce their problem-solving and creative behaviors so that they’re more likely to repeat them in the future. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever praise their good behavior or accomplishments, but you can use your praise strategically to affirm positive behavior. I like this list of guidelines for how to use praise appropriately.
Toys that foster open-ended play include plain wooden blocks, baskets full of random craft supplies, or dolls. Outside, this could include things like cut up logs, sticks, balls, mud piles, and items simply found in nature (like a tree or a steep hill at your local park).
How children use these “toys” or other items is not prescribed and thus they're free to be creative and novel. Try your best not to interfere with or judge how they're using these items. Taking risks is an important part of childhood.
When you do choose representational toys and screen time - look for those that foster curiosity and STEAM learning, like Ocean Explorers from Baby Einstein, a new series and set of toys that inspires learning with fun, catchy songs and characters.
Unfortunately, the notion of a child running down the street to knock on a friend’s door and then spend the entire day playing with them is not familiar territory for some modern children. Whether due to safety concerns, busy schedules, or more time in childcare (as is the case in my household) this just isn’t happening as much. This has sparked the free-range kids movement and all of the inspiration and controversy that comes with it. Whether you believe in letting your third grader walk by themselves to the store or not, you can draw inspiration from the idea of reducing scheduled, structured time in our kids’ lives and inviting them to wander freely (even just on your own property).
Involving other kids can lengthen the time that children are willing to spend on their own, and can invite them to inspire each other with new ideas, even problem-solving when they run into conflict. Find a few other parents who ascribe to this philosophy and get their numbers so you can text them on a moment’s notice to invite their child over or even, gasp, send your child to knock on their door. (I know, this seems against some of our ingrained tendencies to plan, plan, plan, but you can do it!) Once they’re at your house, do your best to let them loose without your guidance.
Most of all, be patient. If your child isn't used to coming up with their own entertainment they're going to struggle with free play. Commiserate with them, understand them, and encourage them when they make progress. Staying strong and creating a culture with free play a part of what's expected in your house will bring around the change you're seeking.