Young children need free play—it can boost mood, encourage brain development, and teach valuable social skills. Unstructured play means there are no rules to follow, so children are challenged to be creative and use their imagination. Here's why free play is so important.
Unstructured play is child-led, instead of adult-led, so there's a decrease in your child’s pressure to perform or risk failure. It’s easy for children to get upset when they lose a game of tic-tac-toe or tag because there are clear rules that separate the winners from the losers. With unstructured play, like running around in a garden or playing with blocks, the rules are spontaneous (if they exist at all). It means your kiddo always succeeds.
Additionally, the child-led free play puts the child in control and allows them to experiment with a sense of independence and freedom. It’s very important for a child to experience moments of ‘freedom’—moments where they don’t have to listen to the rules of mom and dad, or the teacher, to have fun. Encouraging this type of self-control can help prevent anxiety and depression later in life.
Unstructured play also supports brain development in a healthy way, because it encourages children to use their creativity and imagination to interact with common, everyday objects. Setting out simple things like sticks and stones, a bucket of water and sand, or fabrics and dress-up items, will challenge your child to think of different ways to play. The lack of rules encourages them to view these everyday items in new ways, which stimulates neurological connections in the brain that help with growth, even as teenagers. It also allows them to experiment with creative problem solving and decision making, which are critical for development.
Another huge gain from unstructured play is the development of social skills. When children play together without (much) direction, they end up creating their own set of rules that involve social interactions such as teamwork, sharing, taking turns, and group decision making. Playing an imaginary game can put groups of children in new, made-up scenarios where everyone needs to agree. For example, let's say a group of children are playing with a cardboard box. This box could be a garbage truck, or a space ship, or a magical hideout. In order to make the game work, the group will have to come to some sort of consensus. Without consensus, the game is no fun, so your child is motivated to compromise. And learning how to compromise supports social growth.
Your children can learn SO much by playing without the rules. Allow your kiddos to lead playtime often. They'll develop a better attitude, social skills, and become more adaptable! And you'll have a lot of fun watching your child come up with new ways to have fun.
Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.