Learning & Development, Role Play

Why Is Free Play Important In The Early Years?

little girl walking on a clamber stack at school outdoors

One thing is for sure – children are designed to play.

Whenever left up to their own devices, you’ll find that they always gravitate towards play. This is because it’s one of the main ways in which they learn and begin to understand the world. In this blog, we’re going to look at why free play is important to children and their development.

What Is Free Play?

To understand why free play is so important, we must first understand what it is and what are the principles that define it. When looking at the various play styles and theories behind them, there are always rules and goals they wish to achieve. 

Free play is no different, and it aims to holistically develop children. It is described by Play England as “children choosing what they want to do, how they want to do it, and when to stop and try something else”. Free play has no external goals set by adults and has no adult-imposed curriculum. Although adults usually provide the space and resources for free play and might be involved, the children take the lead, and the adults respond to cues from them. 

While we will focus on children in this article, it is not exclusive to early years learners. Free play is the creative activity of spontaneous and free improvisation done by children, artists, and people of all kinds. So maybe you’d like to apply some of these practices yourself!

Why Is Free Play Important In Early Childhood?

Three kids playing in a Hansel and Gretel house outdoors

Before we explain why free play is so important, it is worth knowing that with children nowadays having fewer opportunities to play, we should really define exactly how important play is for children to learn and grow. The lack of play opportunities is detrimental to children as it affects their emotional development, which can lead to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems with attention and self-control. Without play, young people fail to acquire the social and emotional skills necessary for healthy psychological development.

Alongside this are the obvious physiological benefits. One of the main reasons why is creative play important for children’s development is that it often develops their physical motor skills. For example, if children play team-based or group-based games, they’ll be able to develop both physical and social skills.

As free play is important in helping children to become emotionally and physically healthy human beings, it also offers children a chance to play without guidance. Therefore, even though free play develops a lot of their skills independently, it is vital to allow children to explore through play to help them develop further in new ways. 

In fact, the need for unstructured play in the life of children is highly important for optimal child development, a fact that has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as being a right of every child. If you want to find out more, you can read our comprehensive Buyer’s Guide To Children’s Role Play Equipment.

There are a huge number of free play benefits for both young and old children, which can be broken down into various key categories that both teachers and schools are looking for. So let’s look at the benefits of free play in more detail. 

Encourages Creativity

Free play encourages children to develop their imagination while using their creativity. When given a huge number of different stimuli with no plan from teachers, it forces students to think creatively and make their own fun. Children’s brains thrive on a challenge, which can really help them. 

They will explore different materials and their properties and use their knowledge of what they have discovered to play imaginatively, which can be done independently or in groups. When students think up new games with the objects at their disposal, this is a form of creativity, especially when they make up a game using nothing physical, such as role play equipment

Improves Problem Solving & Decision Making Skills

Similar to creativity, free play allows children to develop problem-solving skills. Problem-solving and creativity are often linked as they involve thinking outside of the box. Children can overcome problems independently through construction-based games and movement or in a group setting by navigating games or group disputes. 

The key here is for adults to stay out of the process and allow children to work things out themselves or together in a group. However, if needed, adults should obviously intervene but always allow children to go through trial and error first when trying to get to their desired end result. If they’re in a group, learning to negotiate and deal with conflict by finding a solution to a problem with other students is a great way to demonstrate problem-solving! Even better? Try to encourage them to play outdoors, as this has tremendous benefits on their health and well-being. In case you missed it, we have an excellent blog on Why Do Outdoor Learning And Natural Play Improve Wellbeing that you should read next. 

Develops Physical Abilities

Free play is the perfect opportunity to develop physical, and motor skills as children can run, jump, and chase outdoors whilst playing on a well-equipped playground. Swinging freely on overhead playground equipment develops upper body strength as well as agility, balance, eye-hand coordination, and fitness.

Did you know that free play in outdoor activities engages more motor behaviours than in structured physical education classes?

Improves Social & Communication Skills

This links to the above point, where students have to negotiate conflicts together. This isn’t the only way that students develop social and communication skills, however, there are lots of opportunities for them to engage in free play collaboratively. 

This is often done through role-play and pretending, as it helps them to understand the world better as they embody several different people in different scenarios. This, in turn, develops social skills as they can create experiences that will help them to understand how society works and how to interact with others.

This form of free play is an essential tool for allowing children to develop a sense of who they are and to value the thoughts and feelings of others. It also helps them to maintain emotional balance and sound mental health and well-being, another important reason why is free play so important.

How To Practice Free Play

little girl walking on a crow's nest ship wobbly bridge made of wood

While the purpose of free play is to play creatively without imposed rules set by adults, there should still be some planning and facilitating to ensure children get enough out of their playtime. It doesn’t have to be as rigorously planned as regular structured activities, but there are some things you should consider.

As mentioned earlier, while there is no adult-imposed curriculum, adults should always provide the space and the resources in which the children carry out free play. The play space must be varied and full of stimuli for children to explore and interact with. 

Examples Of Free Play

True free play involves any kind of unstructured activity that encourages children to use their imagination, such as playing with blocks, dolls, and toy cars, whilst it wouldn’t include playing with most electronic toys.

A group of children playing football in the backyard together versus playing on a team with a coach would be another good example of free playtime. This type of active free play is also a good way to help children meet their daily physical activity requirements. More examples of free play include:

  • Playing on playground equipment, climbing, swinging, and running around
  • Drawing, colouring, painting, cutting, and glueing with art supplies
  • Playing make-believe and dress-up
  • Reading and looking at books they enjoy, which are not a part of their homework or study time

Encourage Free Play At Your School Or Nursery 

And now that we’ve covered why is free play important for children, does this sound like something your school or nursery is interested to implement? At Red Monkey Play, we can help complement your curriculum perfectly and elevate your student’s play and learning time to the next level!

You can see on our website all the success we’ve had with our playground designs by looking at our case studies. We have a truly bespoke and consultative approach to playground design, which includes a wide range of different play equipment options, including role play equipment, outdoor physical development equipment, and much more!

For any further questions, please contact us, as we’d be happy to answer any questions you may have. All you have to do is to send us an email at hello@redmonkeyplay.co.uk or call our Leicester office on 0116 366 9922, and one of our team members will assist you as soon as possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *