Free Play

Over the past few weeks we have been having conversations with lots of people about what it really means to play freely, and what free play is. And why it’s so important. And how to make sure our babies get lots of it. And maybe that we get some ourselves. And why… Can you tell this is one of our favourite things to talk and write about?

More and more research is being published (and hopefully much more is being conducted) that talks about the value of play for children’s development, learning and later life choices. There are many ways to talk about and define play. Our understanding of Free Play comes from the work of Dr Emmi Pikler and later Magda Gerber. And it seems we need to clarify what we mean by this :)

What is Free Play?

We believe there are three key elements to this kind of play – three things that identify play as free:

  • It is self-initiated. Humans have the innate need to play. Babies seem to know what they want to play with, how they want to go about it, and what challenges they are ready for. Self-initiated play means allowing the baby to start their own play in their own way. Without suggesting the toys, placing a new rattle in their tiny hand. Sounds easier than it is done, and we have found this one to be particularly hard for a lot of people, especially parents of newborns and small infants – we often, almost intuitively, want to entertain, to provide, to suggest and to offer toys. If instead we let our babies explore on their own, we can find that what they see as play is not what we would do at all – but we can so easily get drawn into their incredible world of discovery.
  •  It is self-directed. When a toddler runs to us with a cup in his hand, it is nearly impossible (Anna still learning this one!!!) not to jump up and say: ‘Oh, are we having tea?’ But maybe we’re not having tea. Maybe that cup is a flying saucer, or a duck (that’s right!), or maybe he was running to you to tell you he knows what colour it is. Here is the time to explore one of the many ways to use the magical parenting word: wait. Wait and see what happens. Wait for the discovery that your child is making right now to happen, and the joy to appear on his face. Wait for his ideas (not yours) to flourish one after another. Join in and follow, but try not to lead. Be the cast, not the director.
  • It is self-paced. When enough is enough, let it be. Try not to encourage one more try to reach that ball, one more stretch. Babies know how to set their challenges, and in time they will learn to pick their battles, and learn how important it is to know what they can and cannot do. And when. When it’s nearly time to go and they are still engrossed in play, warn them in time, so they are given a chance to finish.

Why is it so important?

If play is self-initiated, babies have a chance to discover the world at their pace. They know their bodies and their interests at any given stage better than we do – after all, they get to live with them. And by letting them choose their own play (even if sometimes we are not sure what it is they are doing, and feel like we would have a better idea of what to put on top of that basket… you know what I’m talking about :)), we are watching as they learn all about their own interests, passions, about the world around, their bodies and set up new and exciting challenges for themselves.

If play is self-directed, our kids have a chance to learn about their own interests, but also limitations. They are able to explore their imagination to its fullest, without us giving them ideas and guessing what it is they are trying to do. They are given a chance to surprise us.

If play is self-paced, we are letting them stop when they want to stop, or change direction when they need to recharge or focus on something else – they are learning when to keep going and when to move on to something else. When to take a break. And when to call it quits. We cannot learn it for them (sometimes we can learn it from them though!)

Mama Nadine just had her little baby Mona two weeks ago, and she is once again discovering the joys of watching a newborn play :) How do your babies play? What is their favourite thing to observe, explore, attempt to do right now? We LOVE to hear from you!

Anna & Nadine

10 thoughts on “Free Play

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with these thoughts and beleive Free Play in itself is an activity that is so undervalued and mis-understood by adults. Adults need to trust children to take the initiative and drive their learning through free play activity. Children need adults to value this activity by providing, time, space and resources.

    • Hi Marie! Thank you for stopping and reading and taking time to comment. I agree – trust is the key here :) So often though we find it hard to balance between the trust we want to place in our children, and how much we want to ‘show’ and ‘teach’…

  2. Thanks for this post. I absolutely agree. I do have a question though. I notice your emphasis is on babies and toddlers need for free play and then a jump to us adults perhaps needing it too.

    I believe children of all ages need this and it is really being lost in our world where there is only 20 minutes of recess at school and kids are scheduled with adult-directed activities after school like piano lessons, soccer practice etc.

    • Hi Jennifer! Thanks for taking time to comment. YES. YES, YES, YES – people of all ages need to be given the time and space to play freely. Perhaps the emphasis is there because we are mums of babies & toddlers ;) but you’re right, the need for free play is there throughout our lives, and as is being pointed out more and more often it helps us in our daily lives in ways too numerous to list.

      The problems with over-scheduling is huge, I agree. And I think we need to continue talking about the value of FREE play (not adult-directed, adult-organized, scheduled activities). Very often when you talk to kids who are at school and they tell you about their days, they don’t see the activities scheduled by their parents as play (even though they are ‘fun’ things like soccer or painting class etc.) – they list them as ‘things to do’… So hey, lets keep talking about this louder and louder and hopefully the message is slowly going to get bigger and bigger?

      Thanks for a thoughtful (and thought-provoking) comment!

  3. Free play is also critical for brain development. When children move around, they activate nerves in the brain that help build filters and connections leading to better attention and learning! The more children climb, crawl through tunnels and simply explore their world they are “growing their brains!”

    • Hi Jill! Thanks for your comment, and yes, absolutely!!! We talked a bit about movement as free play in our previous posts – have a look around if you’re interested – but thank you for pointing out the brain development here as well. I’m sure lots of parents will be grateful for this comment.

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