Free Play Is Important For A Child’s Healthy Brain Development Part 2

child play, free play, development of the child

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. 

In part one we learned that 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 Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and Emotional Quotient (EQ). Free-play helps your child develop their emotional regulation skills

Why is Play Important for Your Child?

Free play has the additional benefit for parents in that it gives the parents or caregivers time to meet some of their self-care needs 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.

Lastly, we discussed how 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.
free play toddler

You've Decided That You Want To Start Free Play Time. What can You Do to Prepare your Child?

During the week leading up to free-play time, start noticing when your child is engaging in independent or free play by herself. Maybe she is the type of kid that follows you all around the house, and that week you noticed that you could go to the bathroom without her following you into the bathroom. When you come out of the bathroom, notice and call it out for her. “hey, mommy just went to the toilet, and you stayed out here the whole time playing on the iPad. You are a kid that can play by yourself. How cool is that? Notice tiny blocks of free play at least once every day and call them out.

Kids are as we see them. They reflect back to us the way we see them. In addition to preparing them in advance to play independently, we can also encourage them to see themselves as an expert in their own interest and as someone who can independently seek that. Let’s say your child wants to be a veterinarian. She loves to play doctor with her stuffed animals. You can say, “Wow, you are becoming an expert on bandaging a doggies leg.

You know so much about how to take care of

toddler and mom mom bloggers 2023

How do you Explain Free-Play to Your Child?

Prepare your child before it’s time for free-play time; say, “We are going to try something new and different.”

“I am noticing that you are really learning how to play and do things by yourself.” “Now that you are old enough, I think you are ready for something called free-play time.” “Free-play time is a time for just you.” “You don’t have to share it with anyone, not your sister or brother. You get to have and play your very own ideas.”

“This might be tricky the first few times you do it, but here is what will happen.” “I will put your favorite book, stuffed animals, and Magna tiles in your room.” “You get to decide what you want to do because it is your free-play time.”

“You might decide to lay on your bed the whole time, or you might want to play with your Magna tiles.”

“You get to decide what you want to do.”

“Mommy doesn’t get to decide.” “Big brother doesn’t get to decide, and your sister doesn’t get to decide.” “Only you get to decide because this is your free-play time.” “You want to really sell them on the idea of free-play time.”

toddler girl

What do I do if my child doesn't want to play alone

You can’t expect your child to go into their room and play by themselves for 30 minutes. If your child is used to being entertained and having someone to play with them, it makes sense that they will have a hard time playing alone.

What can you do? Tell them it’s time for free play and set them up for free play with their stuffed animals, Magna tiles, and the vet set. You might want to purchase a few items that you know they will be excited to play with. The set of new magna tiles they’ve been asking for or the sparkly unicorn coloring book with stickers. You don’t have to purchase something new for free play; however, an occasional new creative item that encourages their interests is good.

At the start of the free play, set a  Visual Countdown Timer or a visual so they can see how long the free-play time is. I like this one because the amount of time left on the timer is red, and as the time counts down, the red becomes less and less. Even a young child is able to understand the concept that when the red is all gone, free-play time is over.

What do you do when they say, “ Mommy, color a picture with me, please color with me,” or “help me build a tall tower.” You say, “right now, it’s not my turn to color in your coloring book; it’s your turn to color a picture in your coloring book. When there is no more red on the timer, and it goes off, I want to hear everything you played. I can’t wait to get a tour of your super-high tower. I want to hear all about everything you did while you were playing. I am going to come into your room, and you can tell me and show me everything you did.

When free play time is over, go into your child’s room and connect with them. Let them show you everything they did. Try to ask questions that encourage your child to think about the process of what they decided to do rather than the product. If they colored pictures, instead of saying, “wow, great job, you are such a great artist.” You can say instead, I see you made the sky a bright red; how did you think to make it red?

This lets you connect with your child around free play without having to play with your child during free play.

What do I do When I get Push Back From my Child?

If you are someone who has always interacted and played with your child, you can’t just suddenly flip the switch and expect your child to say thanks, mom, for giving me this great opportunity to play by myself. You have to expect there will be pushback. You plan to be present and help them through it when they meltdown. Remind yourself free time is good for my kid and good for me. All of the good stuff is on the other side of the messiness of learning free play.

You need to be ready when your child comes out of their room during free play. It’s their job to test the limits, and you will want to prepare yourself so you are clear on what you will say and do when they come out of their room.

Being prepared in your mind lets you respond to them instead of reacting to them from a place of guilt. In addition to preparing yourself, you can prepare them for what to expect when they come out of their room. Yes, they will forget and come out of their room.

Remind them, “you might make or build something and really want to show me.” “Here is what will happen if you want to show me and you come out of your room.” “I understand you might forget because free play time is new to you.” “But if you forget, I’m going to say, ‘oh Wait, don’t tell me, don’t tell me, and don’t put it away.’ ‘Because when free-play time is over, I want to come into your room and listen to you tell me exactly what you did, how you thought about what to play, and all about the things you made.”

Of course, they will forget and come out. Tell them, “I know it’s hard to wait when they come out. This is so new and different.” Then show them the timer and show them when free-play time is over. You know your child best and how long they can wait. It may only be 30 seconds or a minute. But you can build on that time until they can free-play for 5, 10, or even 20 minutes.

At the end of free-play, you want to go all in on connecting with them about their success. What was their idea? What did they do? Let them give you the grand tour of their free-play time even when their idea was to lie on their bed.

Lie on their bed with them and be present to what it was like to be on their bed during the free-play time.

toddler crying

What do I do if Free-Play Time is a Disaster?

If it really just didn’t work out, that’s ok. Remind your child and yourself. “This was tricky today; we will give it another try tomorrow.” “I feel that this will be much smoother by the end of the week.” It’s always good to hold out hope for success or something better in the future. Holding out hope for future success is essential whenever your child is struggling with learning something new.

Remember, you and your child are building a new muscle – the free-play muscle. The first time you try free-play, it may feel uncomfortable or strange for you both. It may even end in a meltdown. That’s ok; it doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong. When something new is uncomfortable, it usually means you are doing it right. Keep practicing your new free-play muscle; it may take days or weeks until your child can play happily for 10, 20, or even 30 minutes. You will have some real uninterrupted time for self-care.

Try Learning Kits

Lastly, you can offer your kids some free time activities. Try our learning kits for playful moments. ESP learning kits help your child understand their big emotions and build confidence every time.

Each kit includes over 40 pages of activities, worksheets, coloring pages, and crafts that your kid will love. You’ll discover 5 powerful lessons in each of the four exciting modules of each learning kit.

There’s enough content in each learning kit for a whole month of Social and Emotional activities for at-home practice or in the school environment. If you want to teach your kids how to acknowledge, accept, and understand their big emotions while feeling calmer and more confident, these learning kits are a must-have.