The value of free play: How to raise confident, comfortable kids

This article was written by Katie Vaughan and originally appeared in the Portland Monthly 2017 Kids’ Health Annual magazine as part of a larger series on independence. 

Illustration by Brave the Woods
Illustration by Brave the Woods

Free play constitutes any time when kids can use their imagination without constraints. Yet, when kids play on their own, parents often have a hard time not commenting. Though it may be difficult at first, try to simply notice what your kids do and refrain from making comments, even if it’s a compliment or a seemingly harmless suggestion.

Be curious, open and state only the obvious: “I notice that you picked up the red block,” or “I’d love to know more about what you’re building.” This allows children to indulge their own creativity and build problem-solving skills.

Over the past few decades, kids have experienced less and less free play time. Recess has long been a primary place for free play, but recess time at school has diminished in recent years. In fact, in 2013, the AAP released a study emphasizing the importance of recess, and called on schools to allow more unstructured time for kids to explore and imagine. The benefits for kids include reduced stress, improved social skills and increased cognitive performance. (Good news for grown-ups: It’s good for us, too!)

Free play can include spending time outside in nature, playing with friends or simply sitting and daydreaming. Dr. Craigan Usher advises parents to “set up a space where kids can access their own toys and crafts so they can engage in free play when they feel like it.”

He recommends generic toys that encourage imagination and exploration, like building blocks or art supplies that don’t require adult supervision.

“The longer children can enjoy play without the kind of monitoring that leads to self-criticism and self-doubt, the better,” Dr. Usher said.

The lesson here is one we can all benefit from: Turn off that screen and go play!

More resources to help raise confident, comfortable kids:
Body image
Dealing with anxiety
Screen time