What is free play and why should you encourage it at home?

Learn how playing independently can benefit your child’s development.

A baby playing with toys
13 January 2022

Playtime is not just about having fun – it’s about learning, too. When your little one is reciting a nursery rhyme, they are working on language development skills. Does your child love to toss a ball up in the air and catch it on the way down? They are building important gross-motor and hand-eye coordination skills.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many children have not been able to play with their friends and classmates – something that is critical to their development. While it is important for children to interact with their peers, there are benefits to playing independently, too. We spoke to education and child development experts Syeda Sazia Zaman and Ferdousi Khanom from the BRAC Institute of Educational Development at BRAC University about how parents can encourage free play in their children – and why they should.

Why is play so beneficial to children?

“Play is at the core of the development of the child,” explains Zaman. Children experience and learn about their world through play: they explore their physical environment, express their emotions and build their vocabulary through playful moments. “Play is very natural for children around the world,” adds Khanom. “It is a really important tool for children’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional development and also their imagination and creativity.”

>>Learn how to turn everyday routines into fun playful moments for learning and brain development

What is free play?

Free play is when children have full freedom to play in whatever way they want. “They can choose everything – they have the freedom to select their play materials, interest area and even the plot,” explains Zaman. During free play time, children can express themselves in the way that they choose depending on the day, time and situation they are in. “These kinds of opportunities are very important for children,” says Khanom.

Every child is unique and has a different way of expressing them self. “You may have a child who wants to draw, but another child will want to play alone with a puzzle. Every child has a different way of expressing their creativity,” explains Khanom.                                                  

How is free play beneficial to children?

“Sometimes it’s good for children to play alone or independently because they can be more creative when they are playing by themselves,” says Khanom. When a child is playing alone, they are engaging themselves, using their imagination and “from very early childhood they are being independent,” says Zaman. Building independence at a young age is beneficial later in life.

Free play is also important for learning problem solving skills. “They can try to solve a problem or come up with a solution on their own while playing. They need to express their own way of thinking. Those skills develop when a child is playing independently,” explains Khanom.

From what age should parents introduce free play to their children?

Free play creates an opportunity for children to explore their world in their own way and helps foster creativity and using their imagination, so Khanom and Zaman recommend starting at an early age. Parents should encourage toddlers and preschoolers to engage in free play on a regular basis, but with continued supervision it can even be introduced to babies of 6 months.

How can parents encourage free play at home?

Though free play is all about independence, parents can support and encourage their children in having a fun, playful learning experience.

  • Make sure your child has a safe space to play in. When playing freely, children should have the chance to explore and do most things on their own to build confidence and independence. However, it is important to make sure that your child has a safe environment to do this in. Clear play areas of any potential hazards and check in throughout playtime to make sure your little one is playing safely.
  • Listen to your child. Ask your child, “What do you want to do today?” Based on how they respond, help create an environment where they can explore their interest. For example, if they want to build a house, you can give support by providing materials and a safe space to work. Think about the materials your child would need and then look around your home to see what is available. Don’t be afraid to get creative! For example, if your child wants to do a puzzle and you don’t have one at home, use a picture or a calendar and cut it into pieces for them to put together.
  • Give some clues and prompts along the way. When your child faces a problem, you can help guide them toward a solution by asking “What do you want to do? How can we solve this problem?” As Zaman explains, “The adults should not do everything for the child. We just need to give some clues or support to where the children can think for themselves and do things for themselves.”
  • Make it a bonding activity. Just because your child is playing on their own doesn’t mean you can’t be engaged! If your child wants to play with you while you are busy working, try talking with them about something they can do on their own, and then when they are done you can look over it together. Khanom often takes this approach with her own daughter: “I will ask her ‘can you please write a story?’ I know she is not yet writing properly but whatever she writes is fine. Then she will read it aloud to me.” By taking this approach, you can help engage your child in different activities where they can play independently.

>>Read: Indoor play ideas to stimulate young children at home 

>>Find out more from UNICEF and LEGO Foundation's paper on learning through play

This article was supported by the LEGO Foundation. For fun learning-through-play ideas, visit PLAYLIST.

Interview by Mandy Rich, Digital Content Writer, UNICEF