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The importance of free play for children

Researchers have discovered that kids who have free play are better able to meet their goals than those whose parents jam their schedules.

Experts and parents alike have attempted to structure playtime to make it more active in the hopes of increasing fitness, but a new study suggests that this may not be necessary and emphasises the importance of free play.

Why is it important to have free play?

Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder interviewed 70 parents of six-year-olds for a study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, and discovered that kids who spend time reading, playing, or exploring nature in the absence of predetermined structure are more proactive and better able to meet their goals than those whose parents jam their schedules with lessons and study sessions.

Professor Katherine Frohlich of the university’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine says that by focusing on the physical activity aspect of play, authorities are overlooking several aspects of play that are beneficial to young people’s emotional and social health. According to the researchers, play is good for emotions, relieves stress, and encourages healthy socialisation. Of course, free play is also fun, and all that running, biking, and jumping kids often engage in helps build healthy bodies.

Top tip: If you’re constantly running from activity to activity and your kids are over-scheduled, consider cutting back and adding in some free play.

What does it mean to children to play?

Researchers concluded that talking to the children about their playtime helped them understand what play meant to them, and that play as a goal in itself is important to children and that the challenges they create for themselves provide a healthy level of risk that enriches their lives. They also discovered that the children were ambivalent about their scheduled activities and lacked time for unstructured play.

“Play reframed as a way to improve physical health removes the spontaneity, fun, and freedom in children’s play, which is also important for their wellbeing,” says first author Dr. Stephanie Alexander, who is also affiliated with the university’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine. “Active play alone does not satisfy the preferences of many children.”

Top tip: Keep in mind that while free play isn’t controlled by adults, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t supervise your kids while they’re playing, especially if they’re playing outside.

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