4 Surprising, Science-Backed Benefits of Free Play

It won’t come as a surprise to Let Grow families that a healthy amount of unstructured play is vital for whole-child growth, development, and well-being. We know it gets kids active and fosters confidence and independence. But while those are excellent starting points, the scientific literature keeps just keeps on confirming how profoundly beneficial free play is in a myriad of common sense but also surprising ways.

It promotes self-advocacy.

Teaching our children the correct times and ways to stand up for themselves can be challenging. Let’s face it—it’s a skill that many of us adults struggle with. Self-advocacy is loaded with social nuance which is nearly impossible to formally teach. Yet these are exactly the kinds of interpersonal skills that children begin to grasp during unstructured playtime.

Without an adult to mandate “fair and equal” rules and turns, kids quickly learn that they must act as their own allies in order to get a fair shake during play. This is where the seeds of assertiveness are planted. This adult-free play naturally gives rise to precious opportunities to practice negotiation and compromise. In turn, this helps equip children with the confidence to advocate for themselves in the future.

It helps kids master emotional management.

To put it in simple terms: coping with big feelings is hard. That’s true for kids and adults, but a developed emotional toolkit helps people of all ages cope with disappointment, frustration, anger, sadness, and other emotions that leave us wanting to act out. As a child development study performed at Montana State University notes, play is a time when children begin to master social rules and regulations.

That mastery includes learning how to express negative feelings in socially appropriate and constructive ways based on both their own emotional experiences and those they witness in others. When children recognize that they or others receive a negative reception for acting aggressively or whining if things don’t go their way, they begin to grasp the role that managing one’s emotions play in social interaction. Children who don’t have the opportunity for unstructured social play may have a more difficult time communicating and resolving emotions, which is a major trigger for behavioral issues.

It teaches children that other people are separate and complex beings.

When children are small, it can be hard for them to understand why everyone doesn’t want to play the same way. As they grow older, they begin to understand that other people perceive, think, and feel in different ways. Both creative fantasy play and social play are facilitators of this cognitive development. During creative play, children take on more specific roles and embrace the viewpoints, characteristics, and behaviors of the role they are inhabiting, displaying an understanding of externalized experiences had by others. This influences their ability to empathize, imagining how they might react to an event or emotion if they took someone else’s place.

The natural conflicts that arise when kids play on their own give them an opportunity to put these skills into action, learning even more about the complex differences that can exist between peers and how to navigate and resolve them if needed. A literature review published by Play England delved into the consequences of the absence of play, noting that it’s a significant factor in influencing children’s ability to see the point of view of others, an essential social skill.

It can help kids tackle anxiety, fears, and phobias.

Another benefit to free play is its ability to mitigate anxieties and even phobias. Why would simply playing make children feel less fearful? It’s not exactly what some parents want to hear, but they take more small risks when unsupervised, to see how these play out. This gives them firsthand experience with their own capabilities and lets them establish a healthy set of boundaries that aren’t heavily influenced by a fear of the unknown.

Though it’s natural to want to protect our children, allowing them no exposure to risk can be counterproductive by facilitating anxious feelings when facing new challenges. When kids have the opportunity to react to real situations and test the waters on their own, they can tackle new situations and opportunities without hesitating.

One 2011 paper on evolutionary psychology suggests that allowing children to engage in age-appropriate risk taking during unstructured free play is a possible way to allow them to disconnect from the intense anxiety they feel when dealing with their fears and phobias.

And that’s just the start…

The benefits of self-directed free play are profound, varied and numerous. While it’s true that a revolution in public opinion about self-directed play has begun, prioritizing play is certainly not a done deal. Across the country, recess is still under threat, and kids continue to be overscheduled with organized activities. This means that advocacy for play remains a national imperative. And where better to start than highlighting science-backed benefits? Here’s a round-up of 43 put together by WeTheParents. – N.S.

The main photo for this article is from Unsplash by @phammi.