It’s scary to let your child decide how to play and with whom — but free play offers plenty of benefits!


Sure, it’s tempting to buy your tot another shape-sorting toy or sign him up for a music and movement class, but have you ever considered just letting your child just run around — at home or in the playground or park? This would be letting junior indulge in open-ended or “free” play, something that offers unlimited possibilities.

But what exactly is free or unstructured play? Explains Associate Professor John Elliott of the National University of Singapore’s department of psychology, “Free play is when you can play in whatever way you want, with whatever is available, and with whoever else you want, or on your own; where you invent your own rules, or have no rules; and where it’s a not a game with winners and losers.”

Free play is when you can play in whatever way you want, with whatever is available, and with whoever else you want.”

In his experience, Singaporean parents are still inclined towards the benefits of structured play, especially since it is “a less stressful way to teach children things”. Free play, he explains, is like kittens play-stalking and pouncing on toys as they figure out how to hunt prey. “Humans are just the same — only the range of things humans do is much greater than with animals.

“Children play together taking pretend roles, or playfully wrestling, they play with objects and discover how they can be used, and they construct things. All these are…skills for later life, and they are acquired when young through spontaneous play.”

So it’s natural to play freely, but how exactly does it benefit our kids? And how do we let them do it?


In free-play situations, even a 10-month-old may show that they want a parent (or someone else) to join in, Prof Elliott explains. He cites the benefits of letting a child just play:

• It’s more creative, spontaneous and innovative.

• They develop more confidence as they have experience making decisions.

• Playing with other children allows them scope for exploration of social roles, and discovering how others react to what they do.

So what are some examples of free play? It could include:

• playing with blocks.

colouring, drawing or painting on blank paper.

• playing a game of exploring — whatever takes your child’s interest.

• inventing their own games (with their own rules)

• deciding how to play with their toys — or if there is no toy handy, maybe something from the surroundings could do it; even a plant could become a “doll” or a flowerpot could be a truck!

Something as simple as letting junior have access to a box of old clothes and spare parts from other toys, can give them the chance to create their own world and rules. And reaping the benefits of free play along the way, too.

Photos: iStock

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