For modern parents, one of the most vexing questions is the matter of screen time. How much is too much? And if your kids are getting too much, how do you cut down without sparking fights?
If you don't want your kid thinking of you as an ogre who's constantly blocking them from screen time, it's important to have a fun alternative to offer. And that's where free play comes in. Pediatricians agree that free play is vital to kids' emotional, social, and physical health. And many kids today aren't getting enough -- not because of screens, but because kids are overscheduled and overstructured. If you can get your kid to accept free play as an alternative to screen time, it will be a win all around.
So what exactly is free play? Essentially, it's play in a situation where kids can set their own goals and find their own methods, without you or other adults directing them. Free play doesn't necessarily have to mean turning kids out to run wild, though. You can shape the outlines of their play by giving them role-playing props, climbing toys, a sandbox or dollhouses. The exact toys involved aren't important, though it helps if they aren’t too rigid in the way they can be played with. What really matters is that the kids are allowed to decide what to do with them.
One of the easiest ways to draw your kid into free play is to participate yourself. (Assuming, of course, your kid has not yet reached their teens, when everything you do is horrible and stupid.) This requires you to restrain your natural parental impulses to be in charge. The hook is giving your kid the novel experience of being the one who tells you what to do!
One of the reasons parents are reluctant to give free play time is that they feel obliged to be their kids' entertainers in place of screens. Fight this impulse! Don't feel that you have to swoop in immediately if your kid seems bored or frustrated. It won't kill them, and it may eventually provoke them to try something different. If your kid seems to really be struggling to come up with ideas, it's okay to make suggestions, but try to frame them in the form of a choice so your kid, at least nominally, remains in control of the play.
Another way to get your kids to join in free play is to provide an example by cutting down your own screen time (you can probably stand to cut down, can't you?) and finding something else fun to pass the time. If your kid wants to join you, so much the better!
You may be wondering what the benefits of free play as opposed to screen time are. Free play helps kids develop skills in areas including:
initiative, independence, and creativity: instead of being passive consumers or limited by a game's programming, kids can take the play in any direction that interests them.
planning: once kids have decided on a course of play, they also have to figure out how to carry it out.
problem-solving: by its nature, free play often presents kids with unexpected challenges to figure out, and sometimes things simply don't work out. Learning how to deal with surprises and setbacks is an important part of growing up.
social skills: playing with other kids is an exercise in negotiation, group decision-making, and considering others' desires as well as your own.
risk management: some forms of physical play, such as climbing, running, or jumping, help develop kids' confidence in their own capabilities, as well as the ability to deal with uncertain situations.
If you want to learn more, this article goes into more depth about how kids benefit from increased playtime. But you shouldn't need an education degree to know that all kids can benefit from more unstructured time!
For more insight about kids and screen time, check out our article “Screen Time in the Digital Age“.
Arthur is a father, educator and chief editor at Muddy Smiles - a site dedicated to Play, Toys, and Mud, aka, the stuff of childhood!