Heather Cwiklinski took full advantage of the great outdoors during quarantine, exploring local forests and streams with her husband and nine-year-old twin girls near their Wilmington, North Carolina, home. But like many children, the girls were left unsupervised while Cwilinski and her husband worked during the day.
“The kids would get really bored, so they got more creative,” she says. “The free time made them want to pretend, explore, build, and make things.”
Cwiklinski was far from alone. According to a study by USC researchers, free play—unstructured activities that kids initiate themselves—became the activity of choice for 90 percent of kids early on in lockdown. That’s something that Neeru Jayanthi, associate professor of orthopedics and family medicine at Atlanta’s Emory Healthcare, hopes parents will continue even as organized activities reemerge.
“Kids are more likely to stay active if they're having continued positive experiences and building relationships with other kids in a less structured environment,” he says. “There, they’re free to explore.”
Play experts agree that though things like team sports and crafting classes are good for children, free play—especially activities that incorporate a bit of risk—provides benefits to kids that organized activities don’t. That’s something that Cwiklinski’s family is keeping in mind as they slowly return to scheduled activities.
“We’ve learned that we need to carve out time for nothing,” she says. “And by nothing, I mean time we don’t plan; we just do.”
Here’s how to incorporate more free play into your child’s routine.
The developmental benefits of free play
Kids’ physical activity levels were already at an all-time low before the pandemic: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 75 percent of children were failing to meet the recommended guidelines for exercise. That statistic only worsened when COVID-19 shut down schools, parks, and playgrounds. A study conducted by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that during June through December 2020, the number of obese children jumped two percent from the same time period the previous year. (That might seem like a small amount, but pediatricians say it’s significant.)
To de-sloth their kids, parents might be bringing back schedules full of structured activities—and that’s not a bad thing. But experts say they shouldn’t also sacrifice free play.
Play researcher Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter says that children are much less physically active during adult-led physical activities than ones that kids initiate themselves. When adults are in charge, children tend to wait around for instructions and are physically active for a shorter period of time.
“But when kids take the lead, they’re physically active almost all of the time,” says Sandseter, also a professor at Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education in Norway. “The best way to get them back on track would be to let them engage in free play with peers.”
That not only helps kids exercise more but can also build independence when they have to figure out how they want to play. “When you play with your friends, you're not told to wait in line and only do x, y, or z,” Jayanthi says. “You use your whole body. You run and you jump, and you do things on your own.”
Free play can also help kids who need to brush up on their social skills after more than a year of quarantining. For instance, a child playing on an organized soccer team might have a good coach and is learning proper soccer skills—but she doesn’t have as much of an opportunity to bond with peers.
“When kids have their own free-play game, they're practicing their [athletic] skills, but they're also practicing their interactive skills,” says Ben Mardell, professor of early education at Lesley University. “They're setting up the rules of the game and figuring out how to get along.”
Pediatrician David Krol agrees: “Free play allows them to express feelings, share ideas, negotiate challenges, and ultimately find compromises.”
Another perk of creative play? It boosts brain development and emotional IQ. “Intellectually, free play can help build executive functioning skills like creative thinking and content knowledge,” says Krol, also the medical director for Connecticut Children’s Care Network.
How parents can get over their fear of free-play risk
Free play is often unsupervised (or not as supervised as an organized activity), and that comes with an element of risk. But a study published in 2018 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health indicates that over the last several decades, children worldwide have been given far less independence to travel around their neighborhood or play outside without adult supervision. That same year, the American Academy of Pediatrics cited obstacles like parents’ work schedules, accessibility to safe play spaces, and more exposure to screen time. The bottom line? Many experts believe that today’s kids don’t have enough freedom to explore the world on their own.
“We’re always controlling and observing children,” Sandseter says. “We're always a step ahead of them, telling them what to do and what not to do—and they feel it.”
But play experts note that an element of risk during play can lead to more confident, independent children. “There is great value in kids being adventurous, challenging themselves, testing their limits, and exploring boundaries,” Krol says. “Reasonable risk is good.”
Krol suggests that nervous parents can start by staying just outside of their kids’ line of vision—you can see them, but they can’t see you. And avoid the natural urge to intervene at the first sign of a problem.
“Usually kids find a way out of the situation themselves if you wait a few more seconds,” Sandseter says. “If you have the courage to do that, both you and your child will learn so much more than if you just jump in and stop the whole thing.”
Children might also have some hesitancy about free play—and a parent’s reaction is key to helping them feel comfortable. So if a kid appears to struggle, avoid shouting, “Be careful!” Instead, Krol advises saying, “It looks like you’re a bit nervous. What do you want to do next?” then nudging him to find a solution on his own.
Of course, only the caregiver who knows the child best can really decide what the right amount of risk is based on the child’s limitations. Sandseter advises that parents think more about “competence-appropriateness” rather than “age-appropriateness.”
“The feeling of being trusted to make decisions for themselves is precious to children,” she adds.
Ideas for encouraging free play
One of the best places to encourage safe-but-slightly-risky free play is in nature. Anyone can play outside regardless of age or size. Plus with loose items like sticks, rocks, and leaves, the outdoors can inspire creativity and imagination.
“Nature is an open-ended environment that has opportunities for everyone,” Sandseter says. “A young child might play behind the bushes, while an older and more skilled child might climb to the top of a tree.”
Through her research, Sandseter has identified six categories of risky play. Here’s the lowdown on each, plus her tips on incorporating them into your kids’ play environment.
Play from great heights. When a child climbs very high, she gets a unique perspective of looking down on the world. Though Sandseter says playing on a climbing tower or frame is fine, nothing beats climbing a tree to strengthen motor, physical, and spatial orientation skills.
Move at rapid speeds. The need for speed can boost kids’ strength and motor skills, especially, Sandseter says, when there’s a feeling of losing control: Think rolling or running down a hill, biking, skating, or sledding. (It’s even more effective, she adds, if kids have to move around objects.) For younger children, swinging is a good way to explore speed.
Use dangerous tools: Supervised play and activities with “dangerous” tools helps with fine and gross motor skills. Instead of shying away from things like hammers, axes, and whittling knives, Sandseter recommends teaching your kids how to use them safely.
Engage with dangerous elements: Kids are often so absorbed in play that they don’t perceive the same threat as adults would when they, say, run around an open fire pit or play tag near a cliff. That doesn’t mean those elements should be completely off-limits. Sandseter advises that parents provide appropriate supervision so children can experience these dangers in a safe way. Some ideas: Hike up a mountain as a family, or swim out together to a deeper part of the ocean.
Participate in rough-and-tumble play. Contest games such as play-wrestling, play-fighting, play-fencing, and chasing are great ways for kids to test their boundaries against each other and learn to regulate power dynamics, Sandseter says.
Disappear. Kids don’t have to get completely lost to engage in this type of risky play. But they do need to feel like they’re in control and responsible for themselves. By keeping an eye on them from a distance, Sandseter says parents can allow them to manage the consequences of their own decisions and blossom into autonomous individuals.