Children interact with the world through play. But there is so much more to playing than just having fun and being entertained. The right kinds of play can actually benefit kids in early childhood, and those benefits can help them get through life as they grow up.

In writing this post, I wanted to share with you all the ways that free play can benefit young kids. Free play is something we not only encourage in our household, but that we’ve made a part of our routine. And we’ve seen real positive results. 

Read on to see why, and for some examples of free play you can institute within your family. 

Benefits of Free Play in Early Childhood

12 Benefits Of Free Play In Early Childhood

What Is Free Play In Early Childhood?

Free play is when you give children complete freedom to play however they want. They get to choose their materials, subject matter, etc. It’s different from structured play in that the child is in control of how their play time is spent, rather than the adult.

Free play can be done both indoors and outdoors, whenever the child wants. Because it is child-led, free play looks different for every child engaged in it.

Free play is backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In a special report, the American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledged the importance of free play and learning through play. The AAP recognized the connection between free play and the improved development of gross motor skills, fine motor skills, social skills, and more.

Free play promotes creative thinking

Free play promotes creative thinking.

One of the most obvious benefits of free play is that it increases a child’s creative thinking. Creative thinking is linked to divergent thinking, or the thought process that allows children to explore different options and come up with new ideas.

Free play helps to develop motor skills.

A child’s gross motor and fine motor skills are developed through free play. Children develop physically from the middle of their body outward, which means their biggest muscles usually develop first, then their small muscles. Through a wide range of activities, children learn to use different sets of muscles, therefore developing both kinds of motor skills. 

Free play helps children to develop their planning skills.

It’s especially important for children to develop planning skills during early childhood. Planning skills are what allow children to know how to set themselves up for a task, before they even begin working on it.

Planning skills are used constantly during free play, as a child learns to think about what they want to happen and what it will take to reach that outcome.

Free play promotes independent thinking. 

Giving children free play time every day encourages them to develop a sense of independence and promotes independent thinking. They learn to enjoy time to themselves and time with their own peers. 

The key to promoting independence in young children is to not be present during every play session. Otherwise your child will become dependent on your presence. Play dates are a good way to encourage independence during free play.  

Free play encourages social skill development

Free play, especially with older children, encourages development of social skills.

A connection has been found between free play and a child’s development of social skills. Free play is important for the enhancement of social development in children. Unstructured play that involves others – including parents, siblings, or peers – provides young children with a unique opportunity to develop crucial social skills. 

Free play encourages better physical health.

Encouraging children to play, rather than relying on screen time, provides them with entertainment that is good for their physical health. Free play time, especially outdoor play, reduces the risk of childhood obesity and promotes a much healthier lifestyle in the long run.

Free play stimulates early brain development.

When children engage in free play, they develop a better understanding of the world from early on. Free play creates more and stronger neural connections in the brain–connections that are needed for thinking. 

Unstructured play also benefits the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that plays an important role in child learning and problem solving.

Free play improves communication, vocabulary, and language. 

Free play helps with language development by encouraging more communication through the use of regular language and vocabulary. 

Pretend play, in particular, is important for children, because it encourages young children to practice new vocabulary when they talk to and try to understand others. Research found that when engaged in social play, young children often reciprocate each other’s words and actions.

Free play has been linked to improved intelligence.

Research has found a connection between free play in early childhood and a child’s intellectual development. One study found that frequently offering toys to infants for them to play with leads to a noticeably higher IQ by age three. Another researcher found that unstructured play can have a positive impact on a child’s linguistic, cognitive, and social development.

Visual perception is developed naturally during unstructured play.

Visual perception is being able to interpret what you see. It’s crucial for children because it plays an important role in learning how to read and write. Visual perception is what allows children to distinguish patterns, words, and letters. 

child development tips

Free play promotes healthy expression. 

Unstructured play also creates plenty of opportunities for children to express themselves. During free play, a child has a safe opportunity to act out their emotions and learn how to properly cope with them. Children often use play as a way to express how they feel about things going on around them. 

Free Play Activities

Indoor Free Play Activities
  • Dress-up play
  • Building with blocks or construction toys
  • Arts and crafts (drawing, coloring, painting, play-doh, etc.)
  • Reading/looking at books
  • Make believe kitchen/cooking 
Outdoor Free Play Activities
  • Sand or water play
  • Climbing, hanging, or swinging on playground equipment/playhouse
  • Running or chasing
  • Tossing, rolling, or kicking a ball
  • DIY obstacle course
As a parent, do you incorporate free play into your daily schedule?

I would love to hear your thoughts on free play during early childhood. What are some of your favorite unstructured play activities? Share your thoughts with me!

Then, head over to the blog for more ways I spend time with my girls and all the things we like to get into as a family. 

Below are some of the girls’ favorite toys that I like to make available to them during free play time. You can find more toys & gifts for kids on my amazon storefront, HERE.