Encouraging Free Play For Emotionally Healthy Kids

Mar 14, 2023
Encourage more free play for emotionally healthy kids

In an average week, how much free time do your kids have to just play?  For many families and children, unstructured free time to play has decreased as practices, activities, lessons, and electronics have increased.  

As parents, we want what’s best for our kids and we think we are giving them a head start, but the research is telling a different story.  According to Boston College research professor Peter Gray, Ph.D, there is a direct correlation between the significant and continuous decline in children’s free play and the significant rise in mental health issues in children, adolescents and young adults over the past 50 years.

Free time to play allows children to discover their own passions and talents, which fuels their imagination and creativity.  Free play with other children helps them learn to get along, read social signals, develop empathy, and collaboratively solve problems.  Play helps children gain the skills for adulthood.

A key factor in free play is that it’s self-directed and self-controlled.  We want to give our kids a place where they can feel completely in control of their life, and for many kids the only way to get that is when they play.  Having an internal sense of control over your life is a significant contributor to your emotional health — without it, you are more susceptible to anxiety and depression.

I encourage you to think about your own schedule as a family, and how you might describe it: Frantic, Too Busy, Fairly Healthy and Balanced, Too Slow?  Do your kids have downtime to just “play”, and possibly even face boredom (which is actually really healthy and encourages them to get creative)?

For many families I coach, they tend to fall into the “too busy” to “frantic” range.  I was coaching one Mom who was trying to line up summer camp sessions because she didn’t want her son to be bored — but he wasn’t having it.  He didn’t want her to sign him up for anything.  I talked to the Mom about how his schedule during the school year was really full, and how his desire for free downtime might be driving his resistance.  Given that perspective, she had a completely different conversation with him and they decided on just two one-week camp sessions with plenty of free time to play in between.

Here are five ways to encourage more play:

  1. Make sure games, toys, and crafts are easily accessible and age-appropriate and set up boundaries around screen time to encourage creative playtime.
  2. Let your child come up with ideas and dictate what they want to do.  They need the time and space to develop and pursue their own interests, so let them take the lead.
  3. Know up front that YOU may be bored, and resist taking over or changing the direction of the play for your own entertainment.
  4. Switch roles and let your child play being the “boss” of you.  This helps your child experience the feeling of control which is important for their emotional health, and it can also be very insightful to see what they are learning from you.  I had one horrified Mom tell me that she didn’t realize how much her words made an impact until her daughter told her “you need to just wait while I finish up this call” in a role reversal play session.
  5. Encourage device-free and outdoor playtime with friends.  Talk to the parents of neighborhood and school friends to get more parent support for creative playtime.

If you want to learn more about how play relates to raising emotionally healthy kids, check out the documentary Chasing Childhood where researchers look at how free play in childhood has disappeared giving way to unprecedented anxiety and depression, impacting kids across a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.  

If you feel inspired to action and wondering what you can do to bring more play back - join a virtual dialogue at 7pm on Thursday, March 23rd.  It’s open to all and sponsored by the non-profit Tri-Town Council, which supports the youth and families of Middleton, Topsfield, and Boxford.  

My ultimate mission is to help build a new emotionally healthy and resilient generation from the ground up — and I believe that parents need a new and different set of research-backed parenting tools in their toolbox to parent through today’s modern challenges.  If you want to upgrade your parenting toolbox, I would love to help.

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