When children engage in an activity they enjoy—molding play dough, pretending to be a bakery owner, or chasing other children around—they’re engrossed, maintain focus, and learn effectively. Free play allows children to lead the activity without rules, developing their creativity.
However, that doesn’t mean teachers should disengage. The activities may be child-directed, but teachers play an essential role in setting up play centers, selecting toys and props, and asking open-ended questions to deepen the children’s understanding of the activity.
This article explains what free play is, why it’s important, and how to promote it in the classroom. You’ll also learn a few tips on effectively supervising free play.
What is free play?
Free play is also known as “child-led learning,” “child-directed play,” or “unstructured play.” In contrast to guided play, children choose games and activities of their own interest without an expected learning outcome from an adult. Free play can happen anywhere, as long as the child controls their play experience. For example, activities may include exploring a garden, blowing bubbles, building with LEGOs, and playing with puppets using their imagination.
Studies show that unstructured play improves children’s social and cognitive skills. In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a clinical report emphasizing the role of free play in a child’s development. It states, “If a caregiver instructs a child in how a toy works, the child is less likely to discover other attributes of the toy in contrast to a child being left to explore the toy without direct input. Adults who facilitate a child’s play without being intrusive can encourage the child’s independent exploration and learning.” The report also states, “Children pay more attention to class lessons after free play at recess than they do after physical education programs, which are more structured.”
During free play, the teacher can ensure safety in the play environment. The teacher can also observe each child’s activity, noting which skills they’re mastering and their developmental needs. They can also ask open-ended questions to prompt critical thinking, provide scaffolding to support progress, and help with tasks that may seem difficult—without doing the activity for the child or taking over the activity.
Why is free play important?
Free play is a form of play-based learning that’s beneficial to a child’s overall development. Here’s why free play should be a regular activity for young children.
Encourages brain development and creativity
While learning and exploring, the brain creates new pathways and connections, preparing children to solve problems and regulate emotions. Free play is a creative activity that develops a child’s imagination. Playing without a plan from the teacher forces the child to think up new games. For example, children can create their own scenarios during dramatic or pretend play and act them out.
Helps children learn and practice self-regulation
In early childhood, children are still figuring out what behavior is appropriate for various situations. Studies show that children who spend more time in free play have better control over their emotions and impulses after preschool. For example, during dramatic play, children often follow the “rules” of a specific scenario that they’ve made up. They learn to stick to their roles in an acceptable way.
Without the teacher’s guidance, a child learns to overcome obstacles and navigate games independently. For example, they’ll need to figure out how to stop their tower from falling to pieces. Playing with peers also exposes them to negotiating and handling conflict. Allow children to try managing group conflict and only intervene if necessary. Problem-solving is a crucial skill to take into higher education and adulthood.
Develops physical abilities
Children develop physical and motor skills as they climb, jump, run, skip, and swing in a well-equipped play area. As a result, they build balance, coordination, and strength.
Improves social & communication skills
Children first engage their social skills with family at home. At school, they have multiple opportunities to engage in collaborative free play, further developing their social skills. Collaborating and interacting with peers helps them value others’ thoughts and ideas. They also learn to follow the rules, take turns, show sympathy, communicate effectively, and assert themselves respectfully.
Enhances language development
Children tend to verbalize their actions while playing, which helps them practice word pronunciation and sentence construction. Pretend-play with others is especially helpful as they interact and communicate with their peers.
Free play encourages autonomy in children, avoiding over-dependence on the teacher. Children develop the capacity to tackle tasks independently and discover what they enjoy and don’t enjoy. They also learn to initiate play with others by themselves.
Free play should be an essential part of your preschool schedule. Here’s how to promote free play in the classroom and integrate it into your program:
Create a play-based learning center
Having a dedicated space and readily accessible materials makes it easy to incorporate free play into your schedule. If you don’t have a play center, start with a few props and materials, like bins on a shelf filled with blocks, dolls, and puppets. For dramatic play, fill bins with costumes, hats, and scarves. You can also set up pretend play areas like a grocery store, bakery, kitchen, flower store, or ice cream parlor.
Offer open-ended toys
Open-ended toys encourage exploration, creativity, and communication. They come without instructions and don’t require guidance from a teacher. Avoid toys with batteries as they limit imagination and focus. Consider toys like LEGOs, dolls, balls, plain wood blocks, magnetic tiles, mini toy vehicles, realistic toy animals, and easels.
Provide prompts and offer praise
Praising a child’s effort makes them feel valued and encourages them to keep going. For example, you could say, “What an amazing tower you’ve built!” When the child faces an obstacle, offering clues and prompts helps them think for themselves, for example, “How can we solve this problem?” or “What would you like to do next?” Avoid making suggestions like “Use the red blocks instead,” as this may interrupt their creativity and ability to solve the problem themselves.
Incorporate brain breaks
Focusing on a task takes mental effort. Children need frequent brain breaks between lessons to reduce stress, maximize focus and re-energize. Brain breaks are an excellent opportunity for free play.
Examples of free play activities include:
Rough-and-tumble play is a physical and vigorous type of play, and also referred to as “risky.” Children learn to take healthy risks and develop adventurous minds. They also build physical control and coordination, self-confidence, and resilience. Examples of rough-and-tumble play include climbing, mock wrestling, chasing games, rolling on the ground, and play-fighting with plastic swords.
Children improve their communication and creative skills with dramatic play by acting out imaginary scenarios and taking on different roles. Teachers will first create dramatic play area themes, for example, bakery, grocery store, restaurant, or doctor’s office. Children can also wear costumes and pretend they’re superheroes or astronauts.
Children use their senses to explore the world around them through sensory play. This type of play stimulates children’s senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing, body awareness, and balance. Examples include playing in a sandbox, throwing and catching balls, playing with a sensory bin, and blowing bubbles.
Locomotor play develops physical strength and coordination skills. Examples include climbing, hopping, running, jumping, and skipping.
How to supervise a child during free play
The idea behind free play is that children should lead the activity and take it where they want it to go. However, the child should know that the teacher is nearby to support them when necessary. Here’s what the teacher should do while observing free play:
Support and extend learning
The teacher can support and extend learning by chiming in to acknowledge or add meaning to the activity. Asking open-ended questions helps the children make sense of their activity and think critically. For example, “Tell me about what you’re making with the play dough.” When invited, teachers can also take on a role in pretend play.
During a group activity, the teacher should encourage children to work through any challenges together. As a result, they’ll learn to solve problems together and improve their social and communication skills.
Be mindful of timing
Teachers should know when and how to interact with the children during free play without disrupting or diverting the activity. Allow time for the child to make mistakes and learn from them. For example, avoid stepping in too early to solve a disagreement or help rebuild a fallen tower. However, don’t leave it too long until frustration kicks in.
Let the children play
A child should have the opportunity to be just that—a child. Free play allows that to happen and brings immense benefits to a child’s growth and development without any pressure to achieve a learning goal. As an educator, create the space for free play in your preschool classroom and let your children lead the rest.