Free Play is Important for a Child’s Healthy Brain Development Part 1

importance of child play

Does free play or independent play conjure up an image of a small child playing in the playroom with wooden blocks, and you think that would never be my child? That’s not my kid. My kid would never play independently. If that isn’t your child, then you are with most of the parents out there. That definitely isn’t what free play looks like for your kid.

We hear about the importance of free play for children, but why is free play important?

Now, let’s think about play in general. Play is one of the most important parts of a child’s learning. It allows children to learn by exploring while enabling them to build skills they need throughout life: social skills, such as interacting with others; brain-building skills, like problem-solving and memory; and physical skills, like fine and gross motor movements. So, in general, play is important for your child’s healthy development. 

free play children

What does free play look like for most kids?

Free play often looks different for each child. Your child is unique, and free play is a way for them to explore the different ways they can learn about their world. It might look like using a kid-size shovel to dig up worms or search for bugs in the ground (free play for my granddaughter). Maybe you have a kid who is into cooking, and free play for them is following a recipe and making something for dessert after dinner (My grandsons). It is so much more than a fancy sensory bin or wooden blocks in the playroom.

child play

What is Free Play, and How does it Promote Healthy Brain Development?

Free play is the opposite of directed play. Free play is when a kid is playing their ideas, and they are in charge of what they want to play. No one is suggesting what they play with their pretend kitchen, or how about building their tower like “this” so it doesn’t fall down.

Free play is critical to the brain development of the neuropathway for creativity, innovation, and critical thinking. Free play develops and strengthens the neuropathways that builds both Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and Emotional Quotient (EQ).  Free-play helps a child develop emotional regulation skills

These skills are developed and strengthened in free play when a child decides how to engage in the play and what they want to do they are developing and strengthening their IQ and EQ as they choose how to react when their play doesn’t go as planned. The worms my granddaughter dug up escape back into the ground, or the brownies my grandsons made for dessert are underbaked.

In free play a grownup isn’t there to “fix it” for them. In free play, your child has the opportunity to decide if they are going to get upset, how long they are going to stay upset, and how they are going to work through it. (EQ). They also have the opportunity to problem-solve and use their critical thinking skills to figure out what went wrong and if they should avoid that outcome in the future. If the answer is yes, they problem-solve to figure out how (IQ). My granddaughter learned to put a lid on the worms’ container and set them free when they finished playing. My grandsons decided they could set a timer to know how long the brownies baked instead of taking them out of the oven when they looked done. The point is everything about free play comes from the child.

As a child engages more often in free play, studies have shown that they balance the different areas within their brain and body.  The brain’s neurotransmitters (chemicals) learn to talk to the body in a way that helps the belly brain relax. When we get upset and feel the knot in our stomach, our belly brain is in fight or flight mode. 

child play

What is Directed Play?

Directed play is when your child says, “mommy, play with me.” Mom picks up the shovel and starts directing the best place to find the worms or bugs. Mom decides how many worms should go in the container and when to set them free. 

Mom takes the brownie recipe and starts telling her child the order of the ingredients and how much of each ingredient to add to the mixing bowl. In directed play, the parent is involved in the play activity. In directed play, the parent also sees the play as a teaching moment.  The parent directs the play in a way that teaches the child a skill.  It may be a motor skill – how to use a shovel. It may be a cognitive development skill – how to use a measuring cup. Role play during directed play is a way to help your child develop emotional regulation skills.  In directed play the child is playing with the parent’s ideas instead of deciding what to do, when, and how to do it.

self care parents

How can Free Play Benefit Parents?

Free play allows for a child to explore and learn about themselves.  It is good for kids and also good for the parents.  Carving out and creating time for free-play yields so many dividends down the road for kids and also for parents.  It allows the child to build a world they can control.  It lets them come up with their ideas and execute them, thus helping the child make sense of their world, who they are, and how they will react when something unexpected happens.  When you give a child time for free play, it gives them a place and the space to build the neuropathways for figuring and working things out in their own unique way. 

Free play gives the parents or caregivers time to meet their needs (self-care is good for you) without their little one intruding on their every thought.  We all want to show up as steadfast, caring, and connected parents.  We cannot show up that way if we continually exhaust ourselves and deplete ourselves. 

Our brain is in charge of our body’s energy budget.  If we are depleted, the brain will take the energy necessary for survival from the emotional regulation budget, and there won’t be enough energy for us to show up as our best selves.  

Parenting requires a lot of energy to show up as a loving, patient, and connected parent.  When my kids were young, I often found myself caught in the loop of having the energy to be loving and connected for a time with my kids.  I would be patient, patient, patient,  and then I’d be triggered and explode (read my blog about parenting triggers).  I’d resolve to do better, but if my energy was depleted, that loop got shorter and shorter.  The trigger-explode or trigger-rage part of the loop is an automatic program that activates when our emotional regulation energy tank is empty.  Yes, mom rage was real for me when my kids were growing up.  I didn’t understand the importance of ensuring my brain had the energy needed to make regular deposits into my emotional regulation energy account. 

It’s the build-up of not having any time, not even a few minutes, where you can say, “no one wants anything from me, no one is asking anything of me, and no one is taking anything from me.” Not having 20, 10, or even five minutes when that is true can be so exhausting and depleting.

We all need and deserve periods in our day when we aren’t actively caregiving.  When you’ve had some time to make a deposit into your body’s energy bank, you will return to your active caregiving duties as a completely different parent.  I get it.  Sometimes the best you can do is take five or ten minutes to relax and breathe.  However, those few minutes is critical if your emotional energy bank is empty.  In addition to showing up better for your kids, it will have the bonus of you also showing up differently to your partner.

parent triggers

How Can Free Play Now, Benefit My Child Later As An Adult?

Now, lets’ see how free play leads to healthy child development. Let’s fast forward to when your child is 25 and tells you about the project he’s working on. He tells you about the great idea he had and how it didn’t work out so well when he started to implement it. He then had to rethink the idea and figure out what went wrong and what he needed to change. After a lot of frustration and several revisions of his original idea, his reworked idea was implemented and successful.

All of the skills he used to create and implement that project were learned in free play. He built the neuropathways in free play continued to strengthen them as he grew older, and used them to plan, rework, and eventually execute his ideas. Now, as an adult, he knows, these neuropathways aren’t just a pathway through the weeds but a highway he can comfortably take when a challenge arises.

During free play, kids feel safe enough to take risks, try out ideas, be patient with themselves when the ideas don’t work out, and figure out how to make their ideas work. 

child independent play

How do I Prepare my Kid for Successful Free Play Time?

Maybe you are thinking, this is all great, but honestly, my child will never go for it for even a few seconds, let alone 15 or 20 minutes. The key point is that free play looks different for each unique child. To help your child be successful at free play, ask yourself the following two questions about your child.

  1. Who is my child? The answer is different from who their child-care provider or teacher says they are. It is also different from what their pediatrician says they should be interested in or working on.
  2. What really lights them up? What do they love to do? This likely isn’t what you wanted them to be or love to do when you were dreaming about your unborn child, and that’s ok. 

You may have a child who isn’t going to color quietly or play in their room with blocks. But you might have a child that loves watching the neighbor’s dog running around the yard next door. Start there, put a stool in front of the window, and put a toy dog on the windowsill. Pay attention to when the neighbor lets the dog out to run, and ensure your child is at the window when the dog is outside.

Maybe your daughter loves big trucks and all kinds of construction equipment. Every time you drive by a construction site she begs you to stop so she can watch all of the activity that is happening at the construction site.  On a day you have time, stop and let her watch all of the activity.  When you get home lay out her favorite trucks and construction equipment and let her play what she observed at the construction site.

Maybe your child is one of those kids that loves physical activity and loves to move. They love climbing, jumping, and running. In addition to engaging in active play outdoors, free-play might be a climbing wall with a thick mat on the floor in case they fall off the wall.

If a climbing wall isn’t even a consideration, let them help you make a climbing/obstacle race course out of masking tape for their stuffed animals or toys. Encourage them to teach their toys how to climb, jump, zoom, and crawl through the course.

Now let’s suppose you’ve decided that you want to give free play a try, but have no idea how you are going to convince your kid that it is something that will be fun.  Your child is one of those kids that has always interacted and played with you.  In part 2 of Free-Play is Important for Healthy Brain Development, I will discuss how to prepare your child for a successful free-play experience.  I will also give you lots of practical tips for discussing free-play with your child, and lastly I will guide you through what to do if your first attempts at free play end in disaster.