Photo Gallery

Play Your Way to A's

Click here for Slideshow. You can also click on any of the photos to start slideshow.

Play Your Way to A's

Published: 01/14/2014 by Jean Oram

» Parents and Education

Teachers call it discovery learning. Experts call it free play. We parents call it the way we used to play. Whatever you call it, the fact is, children learn best by engaging in play and interacting with the world around them. Millions of years have carefully shaped the human brain so that play—which is always available—shapes and develops the brain in the most effective and dynamic way leading to greater success.


When children play, their brains build vital connections which helps with skill development and provides the groundwork needed to deal with challenges faced later in life.1


Types of Play

Children who are free to play in an unstructured way, that is, they can mix up their play whichever way they want, are more imaginative, tend to be fantastic problem-solvers and develop great communication and problem-solving skills.



Children who are able to play in an unscripted way, where there is no story limiting how they play (many movie licensed toys limit play due to the fully-formed story centered around the toy), tend to be creative, empathetic kids who are able to work through problems3 and issues4 they experience5.



Children who are free to play in an unscheduled way—that is, there is no appointment made for them to play for a set time—tend to be more socially aware6,7,8, understand social cues with greater ease9, are less stressed10, make friends more easily11 and can deal with spontaneity.



Benefits of Play

When children play alone, with siblings, or with other children, whether on the playground or in playgroups, they naturally fall into free play patterns. Everything children do from trying to stick peas up their nose to, pretending a stick is a gun, to making up their own songs and trying to sell lemonade are forms of free play and are ways that children work to engage, interact and make sense of their world.



Opportunities to play without an adultimposed structure or script allows children to listen to their hearts and minds and work out what is happening in their world. In a lot of ways, play is true downtime for children. It allows them to follow their interests, solve problems, work through issues and relax.


Children who are able to regularly engage in free  play tend to be less anxious, have higher levels of selfconfidence12 and tend to be more self-aware13. Children in the conventional school system who have regular outdoor recesses tend to have higher test scores than children without recess14.



Typically, children who play outdoors tend to have a decreased risk of obesity, depression, attention issues, as well as anxiety related issues. Also, children who attend play-based preschools rather than curriculum-based preschools have been found to have with lower incidences of test anxiety, greater creativity, a more positive view of school, and higher self-esteem than those who attended a curriculum-based preschool.



Interestingly, children who attended a curriculum-based preschool showed no later academic advantage. It is believed that children who play as a way of learning are less afraid to fail at something new because they have been encouraged to play with learning and solving problems. They see learning as a playful, low-risk venture15.



While organized activities are a great way for kids to learn social dynamics, and group norms, these activities are not necessarily the optimal way for developing the vital neural connections and the brain plasticity that comes with healthy brain development. If we want to talk optimal

brain development then free play is where it is at. Exposing children to rich, new experiences, real-life learning, and opportunities for growth and development all happen through free play.



Finding Balance

While parents may intrinsically know the value of play for children, the reality is there is growing pressure to make the most out of every moment, to make every craft, activity, and trip out of the house a purposeful learning experience. It is easy to apply too much pressure to oneself. The truth is, children aren’t created to sit still or be pumped full of information from adults and books all day long. From a

child development standpoint, the structured traditional school day isn't the most effective way to educate a child. 



Over-scheduled children tend to act in certain ways. Parents can keep a look out for red flags such as; unexpected tears and meltdowns particularly when asked to do something, fatigue due to irregular sleep patterns, a tight schedule that doesn’t allow for other things like birthday parties or time to play outside, missed meals because your children doesn’t have time for them, anxiety or stress which can manifest itself as things like bad dreams or nail chewing and no downtime for your children to do things such as mess up their

room or do homework while at home.




Finding the right balance between structure and unstructured is not an exact science and depends on the child. Older kids time can take more scheduled playtime, but while kids are in elementary school free playtime should outweigh the scheduled time. Free playtime meaning; unplugged, actively engaged playtime where they determine the script.




Parents have the right balance when the family feels happy and the child is relaxed and not stressed out. In our family, a messy bedroom from playing usually indicates a good amount of free time has been enjoyed, but once the kids start fighting and bickering over silly things I know it is time to give them something more structured, even if it is simply a trip to the local museum so they can change gears.



Go Play

One way to start encouraging free play is to get out simple toys like blocks, cars, and playdough. Batteryless toys (as well as ones that aren’t associated with a TV show or movie) allow children to engage in free play on a deeper level because they can provide their own script and sounds; a stick can be anything, a magic wand is much more limited. Blanket forts, mud, big cardboard boxes and other simple things that brought us hours of joy when we were kids are a fun place to start.



At first you may find you have to prompt your kids to let their imagination go. Often free play looks like the child is doing nothing. Learning nothing. Making a mess. Being noisy. But those are the moments when children are learning the most about themselves and their world. And sometimes they simply have to be bored before their imagination kicks in and figures out how to entertain them.



Parents won’t mess up their children or give them unrealistic expectations about “real” life by giving them time to play during the school day. They will be giving them their childhood and turning back burnout for themselves and their children.



Let your children play, explore, and engage with their world and you and your kids will reap the benefits. Childhood is made for play and so is the child’s brain. Don’t go against nature, embrace it. Go play.





Hill; 2008

1Principe, Gabrielle. Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms, and the Minivan. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books; 2011



2,3,4,8,9 Brown, Stuart and Vaughn, Christopher. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York, NY: Avery; 2009



5Barnett, L.A. Young Children’s Free Play and Problem-Solving Ability. Leisure Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 1985;7:25-46



6Elkind, David. The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon. Reading, MA: DeCapo Press: Lifelong Books; 2001



7, 15Elkind, David. The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children. Reading, MA: DeCapo Books: Lifelong Books; 2007



10Ginsburg, Kenneth R, Committee on Communications, Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 2007;119;182-191



11Brown, Stuart. An Interview with Dr. Stuart Brown, MD. Amazon.com http://www.amazon. com/Play-Shapes-Brain-Imagination-Invigorates/ dp/1583333339 Accessed June 1, 2012



12Ginsburg, Kenneth R, Committee on Communications, Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent- Child Bonds. Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 2007;119;182-191



13Hirsh-Pasek, Michnick Golinkoff, Roberta, Eyer, Diane. Einstein Never used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn—And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less. Harlan, IA: Rodale Books; 2003



14Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. New York, NY: Algonquin Books of Chapel