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Free play

Think back to when you were a child. What are your strongest memories of play?

For most people, it’s not an activity organised by adults, or playing on a bit of park equipment, but something that happened when parents weren’t around, and very often outdoors with friends: games of Hide and Seek and Cops and Robbers; making up adventures; or even just mucking about in a gang, interacting with each other and the world immediately around.

The opportunities for this kind of free, unstructured, imaginative play outside with others are greatly reduced these days, due to increases in traffic, indoor entertainment, parental concerns, changing work patterns and children’s involvement in organised clubs and activities.

Yet it’s now recognised that this kind of play is so important to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children, and to their ability to grow into resilient, happy, well adjusted adults.

Benefits of free play

Free play enables children to:

  • Be physically active without even knowing it
  • Use their creativity and find out what they really like
  • Discover and act on their own interests, ideas and passions
  • Take physical risks in a gradual way, building up what they are capable of doing
  • Go at their own pace, make their own decisions, be as involved as they want to be, or drop out when things are not right
  • Work collaboratively with other children of different ages and learn how to share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, develop rules and stick up for themselves
  • Experience anger, fear, aggression and upset in a safe environment with friends through play fighting, invented games or just interacting with others, and learn how to regulate these important feelings for later life

There’s lots to read on-line about the researched benefits of free play.  Have a look at this paper on The Importance of Play in the American Academy of Paediatrics, and Give Childhood back to Children, an interesting Independent newspaper article by Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College. See also our Research and Articles page.

Playing out sessions and free play

In our society where children have far fewer chances to play freely like this outdoors, playing out sessions can be a good way of beginning to break the cycle and make it a normal activity again. They provide space and permission for children to play freely together, making good use of public space right outside their homes. Adults may be present, but they simply step back. What children then do in the space is up to them…

To read more about using the space outside your home in small ways see Easy and Effortless Things or go to Playing Out in 4 Simple Steps to take action with your neighbours.

Want to learn more about play streets and children's wellbeing?

Watch our webinar recording!