Why free play is vital for every child

Did you know that free play is essential for children’s cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development? An occupational therapist offers tips and advice on how to encourage little ones to play alone, plus why it’s so necessary.

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There’s no doubt that this year has brought a unique set of challenges to almost every parent. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many families are choosing home schooling over conventional schooling to avoid further spread of the virus. As a result, working parents are juggling multiple schedules at home like never before.

But the good news is, whether you have a toddler or an older child (or both) at home, you can let go of the notion that you have to provide stimulating, structured activities all day. In fact, many studies, including a recent report published in Pediatrics, shed light on why unstructured play is so essential to your child’s overall development. Plus, it also offers the ideal opportunity for you to fully engage with your child, which is just as vital as education.

ALSO SEE: 4 fun games kids can play alone

Why free play is so important   

Play is so important for optimal child development that it has been recognised by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child. Yet, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “many children are being raised in an increasingly hurried and pressured style that may limit the protective benefits they would gain from child-driven play.”

Johannesburg-based occupational therapist and owner of Capable Kids, Samantha Smith gives a few reasons why it’s okay not have a string of activities planned to keep your little one busy, no-stop, throughout the day and to just let your little one play. (This is good news if you need to get some work done yourself!)

Kids learn faster through play

This applies to both younger and older children. Play is a powerful tool for learning because it allows your child to learn about the world and grasp various new concepts much faster than old-fashioned learning. Why? It’s because kids are self-motivated and are more willing to learn through play. “This is one of the main reasons why play is at the cornerstone of our therapy,” explains Samantha.

Play encourages bonding and social interaction

Physical play such as climbing, jumping, running, rolling and swinging – and even games like peek-a-boo with little ones is so important for social interaction because it creates the opportunity for bonding through something fun and interactive.

Play enhances learning and creativity

Unstructured play, where you let your child play on her own and make up games, is so important because it encourages her to use her imagination and be creative independently. That means, she’s playing without you setting everything out or defining the rules and parameters, which can be limiting.

Free play also helps your child develop cognitive skills like problem solving and finding different ways to do something that she’ll use throughout her life. This is because it’s all self-directed, explains Samantha.

ALSO SEE: 8 cognitive activities for toddlers

How much time should you allow for free play?

“This largely depends on your child’s age,” says Samantha. “But I would suggest allowing your child plenty of opportunities for unstructured play throughout the day, in between schoolwork or structured activities. The more chance your child has to play on her own or without your supervision, the better,” she adds.

Which toys are best for free play?

A combination of “defined” and “undefined” toys are best, says Samantha. “By defined, we mean toys like dolls, shopping items such as plastic food, baskets and a shopping till with money, doctor-doctor kits or toys that help a child develop a particular skill. Undefined toys are things like boxes and pieces of string or sticks, which will allow your child’s imagination to run wild.”

The message is clear. You don’t need to buy your children expensive, specific toys to keep them entertained as this doesn’t always foster creativity, says Samantha. In fact, some of the best objects for free play include:

  • Plastic food containers
  • Blocks
  • Sticks
  • Balls
  • Boxes
  • Wrapping and paper

If your child needs a little nudge to know how to play with these items, you can always start by modelling a behaviour, such as starting to build the blocks, or colour in a part of a box with crayons, then give your child the opportunity to try – and see where it goes.

How to encourage free play

Firstly, you need to consider your child’s age, says Samantha. For instance, a 1-year old will need much more parent involvement and supervision than a 4 or 5-year-old would.

Start by creating the play space and equipment for your child and hopefully she’ll take it from there. For instance, setting up a Lego, play dough area or painting station for a 5-year-old is perfect because it provides the canvas for creativity – without you having to dictate the rules or get too involved.

You can also set up a space with items you have at home (for example, rice or macaroni, and sieves, cups or string to thread the pasta through), and see what your child can make and come up with.

Free play ideas

Sensory play is ideal for free play, says Samantha. Get your kids outside, in nature, and encourage them to play with mud and water for instance. Other outdoor items you can use include:

  • A spray bottle and cloth for the windows
  • Chalk for the pavement
  • Shaving cream and a bowl (for older kids)
  • Sticks and leaves.

Indoors, you can give your child a variety of pillows, towels, sheets and blankets and see what they can do with those or safe kitchen utensils such as wooden spoons, pots and pans, colanders, and plastic bowls.

As American author, Diane Ackerman says, “Play is our brain’s favourite way of learning.”

For more free play ideas using everyday items around your home to create simple play spaces, visit Capable Kids Occupational Therapy on Instagram  or Capable Kids on Facebook.

More about the expert:

Samantha Smith, together with her partner, Sarah-Kay Williams head up a paediatric occupational therapy practice called Capable Kids in Johannesburg. Samantha has experience in working with children of all ages, both in remedial and mainstream settings. She completed her Masters in Occupational Therapy specialising in Sensory Perception and Cognitive Processing. Her interests lie in assisting children with developmental delay, sensory integration difficulties as well as autism. Learn more about Samantha Smith here.

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