The importance of free play


Remember the carefree days of summer play as a kid when running through the woods and building tree forts or dens was the only thing on the agenda? When studying ant hills or pond life and selling lemonade counted as math and science "summer homework", and imaginative, rambunctious free play was the only pastime.

Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children.

It's the time during which our children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health.

"The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain," says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. "And without play experience, those neurons aren't changed," he says.

It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex in childhood which helps to wire up the brain's executive control centre. This part of the brain has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans, and solving problems, Pellis explains. So play, he adds, is what prepares a young brain for life, love, and even schoolwork.

The real beauty of free play is that it is available 24/7 and anything goes. Often, kids are so wired for structure and directed play that they have a hard time coming up with things to do on their own.

This is where parents might need to help encourage ideas while giving their kids a gentle nudge to be more creative. There's a lot that parents can do to help move their kids away from the electronics and into the world of "let's pretend."

Here are a few ideas to help get started: forts or dens, art supplies, scrap wood, hammer and nails, cardboard boxes, bikes, scooters, balls, pavement or sidewalk chalk, books, water toys, Lego®, fabric and wool…and so much more.

Once your kids have experienced the taste of all the fun and freedom that comes with free play, you may find that they never ask for an idea again!