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Now that kids across the country are being homeschooled due to COVID-19 stay at home restrictions, the concept of “free play” has taken on new meaning. Our kids are around us all the time, but with remote learning or homeschool, chores and Zoom playdates, the idea of just letting kids be kids can easily get lost. During this unique time, it’s actually more important than ever to just let your kids loose without the structure of organized activities for some free play time.

A study from the University of Colorado Boulder revealed that less structured free play resulted in higher levels of executive function which refers to the ability to organize, plan, self-regulate and initiate tasks – all vital characteristics for academic success.

WHAT IS FREE PLAY?

Free play is a concept that’s hard for many parents to wrap their minds around. With homeschooling, parents are more involved than ever with kids’ schedules. We’re juggling lesson plans with online extra-curricular activity meetings, all while trying to curate and limit our kids’ media consumption. I know that this has definitely been the case with my eight-year-old twins. Sometimes a game on the tablet is the only option. But their favorite thing to do? Just run around outside and play.

“Free play is the heart and language of childhood,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, a psychologist based in Princeton and author of Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends.

Kennedy-Moore says that it’s not that structured activities aren’t good, it’s just that they provide something different. “Organized activities are aimed at improving kids and are directed by adults,” she says. “Most of the time kids don’t have a lot of control. Free play is a way for kids to have control – they can make anything happen through their imaginations. When they’re playing there’s creativity and problem-solving. There’s coordination of actions with different players, compromise and negotiation.”

Although kids may not be able to play together with their friends right now, there’s still value in getting outside and allowing them to explore their imaginations, either by themselves or with a sibling. When my kids do this, I can see their imaginations at work in a way that just doesn’t happen through organized activities. It amazes me to overhear them hosting their own dance parties, making up songs or just getting their energy out together on our backyard trampoline.

HOW DO I ENCOURAGE THIS?

“Unstructured play gives children an opportunity to have freedom of expression, where their imagination can take over with no set boundaries or restrictions,” says Len Saunders, a New Jersey-based educator and spokesperson and author of Keeping Kids Fit: A Family Plan for Raising Active, Healthy Children.

“Today’s children are engaged in so much technology,” says Saunders. “It’s critical for their growth and development to have free play to enhance their creativity and cognitive skills instead of letting the technology do this for them.”

Beyond developing their imaginations, free play is a great way for kids to get in more physical activity, which improves their bodies and lowers their stress levels.

“Make sure you give them the tools they need to begin, whether it’s some sports equipment such as hula hoops or jump ropes, or even paper and crayons,” says Saunders. “Give them a clean slate to begin creating what they want to do. As long as they are participating in a safe environment, let the magic happen.”

And if your kids need a little nudging, Saunders says that’s ok too.

“Give them some examples of things you did at their age like trying to throw a hula hoop around a soda bottle or jumping rope with your eyes closed,” says Saunders. “They need to know as long as their ideas are safe, there is no right or wrong way to play.”

BUT WHAT IF THEY GET HURT?

Regarding the risks involved in letting kids play unsupervised Kennedy-Moore says while you know your child best, in most cases it’s not a major concern.

“For most kids the risks from playing are pretty low,” she says. “They might scrape a knee but being able to use their bodies and explore danger in a safe context – that’s thrilling. Why do adults go on rollercoasters? A little bit of risk adds to the excitement of play.”

Letting kids figure things out on their own is a truly brilliant idea. I notice that when I don’t step in and help my kids, they always find a way to make it work.

“We don’t want to try and solve things for kids that they could solve for themselves,” said Kennedy-Moore. “When we don’t jump in, we’re expressing our faith in them that they can figure it out.”

Now that technology has become even more central to our kids’ lives, it’s more important than ever to find time to allow for free play. Remember, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. For some families it could mean time outside in the backyard or taking a nature walk (observing social distancing rules). For others it could just mean allowing time in our children’s busy schedules for them to have at their favorite materials, whether it’s art supplies, musical instruments or other tools with no set goal in mind.

As kids try to adjust to the “new normal” we’re living in, free play can be an outlet from the stress of these uncertain times. In a way, allowing our kids to play is just as important than keeping them current on school subjects. After all, there are just so many benefits.

“First, there’s the health point of view – free play can be beneficial to reducing heart disease through exercise, especially if done on a regular basis” says Saunders. “Second, play helps develop the children cognitively, as it improves brain function. Third, it can help build social skills. Lastly, play is fun, as it reduces stress for children creating a happier child.”

If free play can help our kids can come out of this quarantine feeling happy and less stressed isn’t that something worth trying?

-—Ronnie Koenig is a freelance writer living in Princeton with her husband and twins. Follow her on Instagram @theronniekoenig.

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