Free Play for your Child's Health (and your sanity)

A new school year will soon be upon us: parent meetings, homework, practices, lessons, lists, schedules, tutoring, tournaments, and a hundred other unforeseen activities are just over the horizon. As an adult, back to school usually means back to non-stop movement. As parents we seek to sign our children up for enriching activities, like sports, clubs, music lessons, etc., but we are tempted to become so busy that we leave no room in their lives for rest and free play, which are activities that are self-directed and are themselves the end goal. To be clear, free play activities are not numbing or distracting activities like television, zoning out on the phone, or many types of gaming.

Your child does not need to be constantly active in order to become a healthy and happy adult. I am not saying that participating in extra-curricular activities is a bad thing; research has shown that participation in enriching activities can be a very good thing, but I am saying too much of a good thing can become detrimental.

Dr. Peter Gray, in his 2011 article in the American Journal of Play, mentions five benefits for children who have time to free-play. All of these benefits work toward developing a firm foundation for the future mental and emotional health of your child:

1. Free-play helps children develop and connect with their own self-identified interests.

2. Children learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control and follow rules.

3. Time in free-play helps children learn how to regulate their emotions, including anger and fear.

4. Play helps children develop friendships and a sense of equality.

5. Free-play is in and of itself a source of happiness.

As they prepare for the next stage of life children and teens are now busier than ever, which comes with an increased risk for anxiety and/or depression. Often, the emotionally safe and developmentally necessary time of free-play is replaced with strenuous, stressful, and performance-driven activities.

Kathy Saucier-Jones, Licensed Professional Counselor, says, "It is a good thing for children to be exposed to and be a part of team sports/activities. However, when they are constantly ‘enroute’ to the next activity, with very little time to ‘play’, it can prevent the child from having an opportunity to develop a sense of self. Free-time gives children a chance to ponder, if they want... Or not... It gives a child the chance to become at ease with herself/himself and to become familiar with what it feels like to be at rest.”

Free-play has also been linked to creativity. In ‘The Power of Play’, Dr. Rachel White states that “a metaanalysis of play studies found that one of the strongest links among a long list of correlates of pretend play was to divergent thinking, a key component of creativity.” She goes on to link pretend play with positive benefits in language and literacy, socialization, emotional regulation and overall physical health. As a former teacher I can attest to the success I had in my early childhood classrooms by giving my students time for free-play. Teachers, I would like to encourage you to challenge the amount of homework you assign by looking at the suggestions of the NEA in their web article ‘Research Spotlight on Homework’.

Time doing nothing is not time wasted.

In his book ‘The Overscheduled Child’, Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld has this helpful advice: "Parents need to relax. Slow down. Activities are fine, but don't go over the top. Research says that what children need most are relationships, not activities. Focus on building meaningful relationships with your children, not becoming their chauffeur."

Here are three small steps towards clearing out some free-time for your child (and yourself).

1. Just say No – Disappoint your children on occasion. You actually know better than they do, contrary to what they may tell you. Spend time thinking through what would be a healthy amount of time spent in enriching activities, and then say no to those things which would exceed this boundary.

2. Family Night – Spend time doing nothing together. Boredom is often a culprit for adventure. See what comes of a night with no agenda, no TV and no tasks too complete.

3. After-School Hours – While it is important to teach your children to responsibly finish the tasks given to them, it is as equally important to teach them how to rest. Based on their age, help them learn how to wind down after a long day at school. Often, playing with them is the best way to teach them to play, not to mention meeting your own needs for rest.

Parents, cut yourself some slack. Give yourself time to enjoy with them. This will look different from family to family and there really is no specific way to do it. Set aside sacred time every week to simply be with your children, and then defend this time. I can promise that they long more for your affection and attention than any end of the year trophy, accolade or prize.