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The importance and benefits of free play

Brother and sister playing on the lawn
Credit: iStock.com/Imgorthand

Meet four-year-old Hannah. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays she goes to preschool and afterschool care until her mum picks her up at 5.30pm. On Thursdays, she has swimming followed by ballet. Fridays is soccer and art class at the local library. Saturdays are for soccer games and playdates while on Sundays, it is almost always someone’s birthday party.

Now Hannah’s parents aren’t expecting her to become a prima-ballerina or a soccer star or to be voted most popular in school. Hannah’s parents just want the best for her, want her to be happy and fulfilled, and want to make sure that she has every opportunity open to her.

Hannah’s parents are feeling the social pressure to keep their daughter busy, but is it actually good for Hannah?

It seems we have a current parenting culture of filling every hour of every day with interesting things for our children. In my work with families, most parents say they feel a pressure to keep up with other families that provide these extra activities and feel like they are not doing the right thing or giving their child the best opportunities if they don't put them in a range of activities.
Georgina Manning

The pressure to keep children busy

Counsellor and psychotherapist Georgina Manning, Director of Wellbeing For Kids, an allied health centre in Melbourne, says there is an increase in children doing more out of school activities now than ever before.

“Parents are running children around from activity to activity and filling every spare moment with extracurricular activities,” she says.

“It seems we have a current parenting culture of filling every hour of every day with interesting things for our children. In my work with families, most parents say they feel a pressure to keep up with other families that provide these extra activities and feel like they are not doing the right thing or giving their child the best opportunities if they don't put them in a range of activities.”

Georgina also notes the pressure the extracurricular activities is putting on families.

“The pressure on parents to keep their children 'busy' is enormous and it is not working for the parents and not working for the children.

“All it is doing is putting enormous stress on families and families are left exhausted, stressed, anxious and irritable with little time left to just be in the moment or nourish the things that are important.”

Georgina says the decrease in free play can also lead to children losing out on valuable life skills and even potentially affect their mental health.

“It is really important that children learn to problem solve for themselves and if adults are hovering over their children every minute of every day, we are disempowering our children, and this has catastrophic consequences on their mental health.

“Children never learn to direct their own lives or think for themselves which erodes the development of self-efficacy.”

What is free play?

Georgina explains that free play is play which is not directed by an adult in any way, but where children choose activities or games that interest them.

“This may include adults setting up the tools so kids can be engaged in their own play such as having art materials, Lego, or building materials around for children to investigate and explore.”

Free play, she says, is where “the child directs the play and there is no expected outcome from an adult. Examples of free play are playing in the garden, dress ups, singing, making a bug catcher, creating a cubby house, building with Lego, drawing, playing with toys using imagination, exploring the garden, creating a puppet show, role playing, being silly with friends, blowing bubbles, rolling on the grass, jigsaw puzzles, playing with pets etc.” 

Georgina notes that screen time is definitely not free play and that screen time actually takes valuable time away from free play.

“Research shows that when children are using their imagination or in the state of wonder of their natural environment, just playing for the sake of playing without any expected outcome from an adult, then their brains are refreshed and rested,” she says.

“Children need to rest their brains regularly and by taking children from activity to activity, this only stresses children, leaving little time for this vital play time. Not only is this vital for children's mental health and overall wellbeing, but essential for development of social and emotional skills.”

Parents can get involved in the play too, says Georgina, as long as they aren’t directing the play, but rather playing with their child and letting their child take the lead.

How much free play should kids have?

Georgina says there is no set amount of time parents should ensure their children are dedicating to free play. Instead, she recommends looking at the child’s weekly schedule and seeing how much time they really have to play.

“I often get parents of primary aged children to reflect on their child's week and create a visual of the week, putting in school time, homework, after school activities and screen time. Then parents can see clearly what time is left for free play.

“Parents are often really surprised to learn that there is very little time left in the day for their child to just play and to rest their brain.

“For preschoolers, having a mix of social interactions with peers and adult play, mixed in with some extra activities is a great mix for this age group.

“As preschoolers usually have a lot more free time than primary aged children, then it can be more beneficial for children to have a few extracurricular activities, however, these don't necessarily need to be a class or something that costs money.

“Catching up with other families and meeting in the park for a picnic in nature can be an extracurricular activity or going to the local library and listening to story time or choosing books for the week is also a valuable activity.

“If children are in day care then having time each day when they get home to just play without adult direction is vital as well as the parent/child playtime.”

Should we ditch extracurricular activities completely?

Georgina says that extracurricular activities can have their benefits.

“I do believe that team sports are very important for children to participate in and this would be one activity I would recommend for children. However, it is vital the focus is on fun, joy, enjoyment and healthy competition rather than the focus on creating sport stars or to be better than other children. 

“This takes away the fun for children and the experience to look after each other and the chance to develop empathy. It can also create unnecessary stress for children if they are pushed to always be 'better' and 'win' - this automatically takes the children out of mindfully being in the moment of the activity.”

Georgina says that activities can help to teach children valuable life lessons.

“If children are enrolled in an activity, then they need to see the term or year out in that activity to teach children persistence, grit, commitment and to manage difficult emotions. Particularly if children are in team sports, they have a responsibility to others as well.”

For children who struggle to make friends or who have become too comfortable spending hours in front of a screen, Georgina recommends that extracurricular activities and playdates can be beneficial for them.

Free play ideas for families

  • Playing in the garden
  • Dress ups
  • Singing
  • Making a bug catcher
  • Creating a cubby house
  • Building with Lego
  • Drawing
  • Playing with toys using their imagination
  • Exploring the garden
  • Creating a puppet show
  • Role playing
  • Being silly with friends
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Rolling on the grass
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Playing with pets