The Importance of Free Play


What is Free Play?

Free play is when we allow children to have freedom to play in whatever and however way they want, with no direction from an adult (but adults are encouraged to participate from time to time!) They can choose their play materials and activities and how they engage with them. Choice is the crucial component for free play.

Importance of Free Play

Play is an important tool for children’s cognitive, speech and language, social and emotional, and physical development, as we know that children learn through play! 

  • Cognitive Development: Free play is important for learning problem-solving skills as children can come up with solutions while playing on their own. As children grow and are asked to solve academic or real-life problems, they will be better equipped to resolve them using the skills they have practiced during free play. They can be more creative and use their full imagination. Free play allows children to learn about the world around them and help them explore how society works. 
  • Speech and Language Development: When children engage in free play with their peers or their caregivers, they develop skills in the reciprocal or back-and-forth exchanges necessary for communication development. By joining your child’s free play, you can develop their joint attention by focusing on the same thing. Joint attention is an important component of not only play, but also communication as children learn to make eye contact, look at shared activities, and engage in conversations with others. 
  • Social and Emotional Development: Free play relieves stress. Children often process their anxiety and fears during play, which helps them to build resilience to these stressors. Free play also provides opportunities to build independence in children as they learn how to occupy their time, solve problems, and express themselves. Free play with peers or caregivers provides the opportunity for children to negotiate rules and learn to cooperate with others.
  • Physical Development: When children choose to engage in locomotor free play including activities such as climbing or jumping, they develop their locomotor skills and build confidence in their physical abilities. The development of foundational motor skills in childhood is essential for promoting an active lifestyle throughout their lives.

Child-Led Play

Free play does not just have to be independent play; parents and caregivers can join in on their child’s play! Follow your child’s lead during play, letting them pick the plot, and join in on their play schemes to promote bonding. Research has demonstrated the importance of play in promoting safe and nurturing relationships between children and their caregivers.

How to Encourage Free Play at Home?

  • Start early: Free play can start as early as six-months old with supervision.
  • Create a safe space: Make sure your child has a safe space to play in to explore independently.
  • Schedule time for free play: Review your child’s schedule and consider how much time they have to play. Add free play into their schedule to ensure they have the opportunity to engage in this type of play along with other obligations such as school, extracurricular activities, and appointments. 
  • Offer open-ended toys and materials: Offer materials that allow for safe free play like building blocks, finger paints, dolls, or a water table.
  • Let them get bored: Some children will happily engage in free play every opportunity they get, but for others they might expect their caregivers to provide an activity for them to engage in. Resist offering suggestions and allow your child the opportunity to be bored and then time to overcome that boredom by engaging in free play!


Questions or concerns?

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s play development, please contact us at or 773-332-9439.


Kelsey Lanham, MA, DT

Therapeutic Preschool Teacher and Developmental Therapist 



How to encourage Free Play. Scholastic. (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2022, from

The importance and benefits of free play. First Five Years. (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2022, from

What is free play and why should you encourage it at home? UNICEF Parenting. (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2022, from

Yogman, M., et al. (2018, September 1). The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. American Academy of Pediatrics. Retrieved June 23, 2022, from

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