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Re-Valuing Free Play

By Cynthia Aldinger

Many parents don’t realize that imaginative free play has been squeezed out of our children’s lives, and what a tremendous loss this is.

The majority of preschool programs today emphasize early learning, computer literacy, or using the materials in just one way rather than being play-centered. Some public elementary schools provide no recess or physical education time at all. The highly structured time a child spends in preschool, daycare, school, or aftercare is usually supplemented by a daily dose of enrichment classes and adult-led sports. These activities are sandwiched in between the three to four hours a day the average child spends watching television, movies, or playing with video games. The old refrain from my childhood, “What’ll I do?” is rarely heard today as children have almost no time in which they are not being instructed or entertained.

Neighborhood play has all but disappeared along with our neighborhoods. Many parents fearfully keep their children indoors or under constant supervision, and children frequently must be driven to friends’ houses. Spontaneous activities such as bike riding, outdoor skating, or ball games have for the most part been replaced by soccer, hockey, or other leagues which often place tremendous pressure on the child to compete or perform.

All children need “off time” in which they can be the initiators of their own activity, whether that involves making something, reading, writing, or just daydreaming. It is important for the development of the will, for the development of the ability to take initiative, that children have unstructured time in environments which encourage creative activity.

For the young child, imaginative free play is especially important because it nurtures the kind of creativity which will be transformed into creative thinking. The young child’s ability to pretend that a basket of pinecones is baby chicks one moment and apples the next reflects the child’s fluid consciousness and is excellent preparation for reading, where written symbols represent something else. When young children are using their imaginations in play, their brains are working and developing in a much healthier way than when they are being made to sit and do pages from workbooks. The saying “play is the work of childhood” reflects the importance which free play holds in the healthy development of the child.

Activities which are child-directed are like an “out breath” through which he or she can relax and release energy. When parents or teachers create the space for free artistic activities or when toys encourage the child’s imagination, the child can be active and express everything from life which he or she has taken in so eagerly. Creative free play engages children completely: their bodies are in movement, their minds and imaginations are lightning-quick, they are able to act out roles and situations which they have experienced around them, and they are often interacting socially with one or more other children.

When I was teaching in a Waldorf (Rudolf Steiner) preschool, the most frequently heard comment at the November parent evening was, “Ryan is so much more imaginative now” or “Heather plays so much better with her brother. There’s so much less fighting now, and they always seem to have something to do.” How can you encourage your child’s healthy free play? Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Value unstructured time for your child. Look at your child’s schedule and see if it needs simplifying.
  • Limit or switch off the media. Children should be playing with puppets, not watching them on television. Movement is the lifeblood of childhood.
  • Read and tell stories to your child. Images formed through listening involve entirely different parts of the brain than those received from television.
  • Provide simple costumes and toys which encourage imagination. Toys which aren’t very detailed such as cloth dolls without expressions and items found in nature engage active imagination better than cartoons or plastic action figures.
  • Arrange toys so the child is “drawn in.” Put the dolls to bed or arrange figures in a scene rather than having everything thrown together in a basket.
  • Provide time in nature and interaction with the four elements.
  • Choose play-based programs for preschool and daycare.
  • Let your child help you with real work. “Helping” rinse the dishes, fold the laundry, or fix a bicycle is quality time, especially if you enjoy one another and don’t expect them to “get results” (being goaldirected makes it adult work, not child’s play).
  • Provide smaller-sized tools so your child can play out the things he has seen you doing—woodworking, cooking, etc. Children cannot help but imitate the world around them.
  • Encourage artistic activities which allow free expression: coloring on blank paper, painting, modeling with colored beeswax, etc.

When our children are adults, most of the jobs available will not even have been thought of today. And the world they will be inheriting will demand adults who can think creatively and who are able to act with courage and initiative. By putting your attention on the value and quality of free play, you will be helping your child reclaim his or her natural birth right, creative imagination, and you will be giving him or her important preparation for adult life.