Children nowadays have fewer opportunities to engage in free play.  Their lives are becoming increasingly structured and organised, with significant amount of time spent in classrooms, enrichment programmes, as well as using electronic gadgets (i.e. screen time).  Parents need to be aware that subjecting children to such large amounts of ‘organised time mode’ may be adversely affecting their development.

School holidays should not be a time to provide more academic, school-like activities.  Children need time to play and enjoy childhood which is a relatively short period in their lives!  They also need to be able to make some choices about what they would like to do within family limits and expectations.

This topic will explain to parents the importance of free play for children’s development and learning, including some pointers about brain development.  Part I introduces the concept of free play and its benefits.

What is free play?

Free play means allowing children to pursue play in a way that is open-ended, spontaneous and self-directed.  It can be outdoor play, pretend play, block play or other forms of sustained play, and even project work, as long as it is child-initiated and enables children to follow their genuine interests.  Free play should be spontaneous, yet deeply engaging, joyful and pleasurable.  It may not have a clear purpose, structure or plan but always involves exploration and discovery, and stimulates imagination.

Sustained free play allows children to develop the ability to focus deeply on their task or activity, as well as revisiting and/or exploring things that interest them and depending on the age of the child may end with an elaborate construction or creation.

Children need to be able to play on their own as free play helps them develop important skills and dispositions to become competent, independent and resilient individuals.  Running children’s lives on packed schedules may deny them the opportunity to develop these skills and dispositions.

Children’s free play should be a protected time against other competing demands, such as academic learning, enrichment and screen time.  School holidays is a time that children can be given large blocks of unscheduled free time to engage in free play or work on projects that they are interested in.

Why do children need free play?

Free play enables children to

  • discover their own interests,
  • develop their imagination (important for abstract and creative thinking),
  • be creative in their play (important for problem solving),
  • figure things out on their own and be in control,
  • make mistakes and learn from them,
  • develop resilience (i.e. to recover from setbacks), and
  • learn the rules of life.

During free play, children are given the opportunity to work independently on tasks, which often requires them to:

  • maintain focus on a task,
  • restrain themselves from distractions and impulses,
  • make a plan about how to proceed with the task,
  • tackle challenging situations and think of new ways to solve the problem,
  • persist and learn to cope with difficult feelings when faced with challenges or failures.

Free play also helps children develop independence and self-confidence by providing the opportunity to exercise autonomy and be in control.  During free play, children have to make choices and decisions and in the process, they

  • learn to think on their own,
  • know what they can control and what are off limits,
  • be self-directed, and
  • be responsible for their decisions.

These positive dispositions and skills are vital to children's learning process and help them become effective learners. Free play provides constant opportunities for children to practise these skills.

Free play and brain development

Play helps to shape the developing brains of young children.  Free play, in particular, helps to wire up the prefrontal cortex[1], the part of the brain that is responsible for emotion regulation, reasoning and decision-making.  Through free play, children explore and learn to manage their emotions, and become emotionally secured.

Play experience also fosters the development of the social brain which enables children to navigate complex social contexts.  During free play, children learn to take turns, share, communicate and negotiate with others, cooperate and work together with others, and empathise with others.  Social interaction is complex and dynamic in nature, social skills cannot be taught through planned lessons, therefore children need lots of practice through free play to develop these skills.

Concluding comments

Free play is vital to children’s development and should not be replaced by other forms of play and/or learning.  Parents are encouraged take a step back from managing their children’s lives at times when it is safe to do so, e.g. at home during school holidays, and let them play on their own.

Parents’ role and some suggestions as to how to provide free play activities will be covered in Part II of the topic.


[1] Hamilton, J.  (2014, August 6).  Scientists say child's play helps build a better brain.  NPR Ed.  Retrieved from

Copyright © Marjory Ebbeck and Wendy Toh 2017

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