The Importance of Free Play for Kids

There are big payoffs in letting kids be kids

Child playing with blocks

Michael H. / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Few things are more associated with childhood than playtime, but some kids aren't getting enough free playtime. These are times when kids need to use their imagination or enjoy physical activity rather than being coached on a team or watching electronic entertainment, and there are many benefits to this type of simple, unstructured play.

Overscheduled Kids

Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.

Play is so important to optimal child development that it's been recognized by the United Nations as a basic right of every child.

But with all of the structured activities and the strictly scheduled lives kids often live these days, some are left without any real time to just play. Even when given time to play, they may be too tired after participating in all the organized activities to take advantage of the opportunity.

There are a host of factors that have led to a decrease in free play time including a greater emphasis on academic preparation, working parents with little free time to care for children, more electronic screen time, less time spent playing outdoors, perceived risk of play environments, and limited access to outdoor play spaces.

The Importance of Free Play

"Children are designed, by natural selection, to play," wrote Peter Gray, Ph.D., long-time research professor of psychology at Boston College and author, in 2011 in the American Journal of Play. "Wherever children are free to play, they do."

However the last half-century has seen a decline in kids' opportunities to play. Precisely how fast and how much the opportunity for real free play has declined is difficult to quantify, though historians suggest that the decline has been continuous and great. The decline in free play has also led to lasting negative consequences.

In that same article, Gray detailed how the lack of play affects emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self-control.

Gray argues that, without play, young people fail to acquire the social and emotional skills necessary for healthy psychological development. 

What Experts Say

In a special report on play from 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) outlined a host of payoffs from free play, including that it:

  • Allows kids to use their creativity and develop their imagination, dexterity, and other strengths
  • Encourages kids to interact with the world around them
  • Helps children adjust to school and enhance their learning readiness, learning behavior, and problem-solving skills
  • Helps kids conquer their fears and build their confidence
  • Helps kids practice decision-making skills
  • Teaches kids to work in groups so they learn to share and resolve conflicts

Of course, free play is also fun, and all that running, biking, and jumping kids often engage in helps build healthy bodies. That's a significant benefit, considering that 20% of American children are obese. Many experts attribute the dramatic rise in childhood obesity and the decline in physical fitness at least partly to the decline in outdoor play.

The ability for kids to manage their emotions and behaviors, what experts call emotional regulation, may also be a casualty of too little play—and a factor in the high rate of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Child-Driven Play

Children learn how to regulate fear, anger, and other emotions while playing. This teaches them how to maintain emotional control in threatening and real-life situations, all of which seem to be a strong countervailing force to the impulsivity, hyperactivity, and lack of emotional control that characterize ADHD.

At least one play-based intervention aimed for improving the social play skills of children with ADHD has shown significant success by having assigned but free-form play-dates under parental supervision among the children, their parents, a designated friend, and that child's parents.

It's important to note that this kind of play is meant to be unstructured, child-driven play. It's not the kind of playtime that's controlled by adults and it doesn't include passive play, such as sitting in front of a video game, computer, or TV.

Keep in mind that while free play isn't controlled by adults, that doesn't mean you shouldn't supervise your kids while they're playing, especially if they're playing outside.


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. It wouldn't include playing with most electronic toys.

A group of kids playing soccer in the backyard together versus playing on a team with a coach would be another good example of free play time. This type of active free play is also a good way to help your kids meet their daily physical activity requirements.

More examples of free play include:

  • Drawing, coloring, painting, cutting, and gluing with art supplies
  • Playing make-believe and dress-up
  • Playing on playground equipment, climbing, swinging, running around
  • Reading and looking at books they enjoy, not as part of homework or study

If you're counting on school recess to provide your child with a healthy dose of free play, you may want to rethink that decision.

The length of school recess may be too short to count as free play. In fact, it is rarely mandated at the state level and some schools have eliminated it altogether. Additionally recess is often a very structured event.

A Word From Verywell

If you're constantly running from activity to activity and your kids are over-scheduled, consider cutting back and adding in some free play. Unstructured play lets your kids explore their imagination and the things around them. In a time when so many parents deal with hectic schedules, it's good to remember the importance of a little free time.

As the American Academy of Pediatrics report notes, some of the best interactions between parents and kids occur during downtime—just talking, preparing meals together, working on a hobby or art project, playing sports together, or being fully immersed in child-centered play.

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Article Sources
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  1. International Play Association ( UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Overview (with links to full text). (Adopted November 20, 1989). By IPA site administrators. International Play Association ( 2020

  2. Gray P. The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents. American Journal of Play. 2011;3(4):443-463.

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Want Creative, Curious, Healthier Children with 21st Century Skills? Let Them Play. August 20, 2018. Itasca, Ill.: American Academy of Pediatrics 2020

  4. NCD Risk Factor Collaboration (NCD-RisC). Worldwide trends in body-mass index, underweight, overweight, and obesity from 1975 to 2016: a pooled analysis of 2416 population-based measurement studies in 128·9 million children, adolescents, and adults. Lancet. 2017;390(10113):2627–2642. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(17)32129-3

  5. Wilkes-Gillan S, Bundy A, Cordier R, Lincoln M, Chen YW. A Randomised Controlled Trial of a Play-Based Intervention to Improve the Social Play Skills of Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). PLoS One. 2016;11(8):e0160558. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0160558

  6. Riser-Kositsky M. (2018, July 17). 7 Things to Know About School Recess. Education Week.

Additional Reading