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The Science-backed Benefits of Free Play


Children love to tackle new challenges, and it's easier than ever to find activities, classes and leagues that can dominate their free time. Yet, while those can be beneficial, downtime where children can choose their own play activities, use their imaginations and learn through exploration is vital and there is plenty of science to back this up.

Physical Benefits

Fine motor skill improvement: For toddlers and younger children, grasping, stacking and using small toys can improve small motor skills.

Encourages healthy physical activity: Staying moving is important at all ages, and free play is a time when kids are likely to get physical.

Gross motor skill benefits: Broad movements are beneficial during physical play too, strengthening their larger muscle groups.

Cognitive Benefits

Problem solving skill boosts: Time spent engaging with puzzles and games encourages critical thinking and problem solving skill development.

Preparedness to learn: Some researchers believe that children master their learning strategies partially through unstructured peer interactions.

Boosts attention span: When kids engage in free play, they're mastering their ability to focus without realising it.

Steps up cognitive development: Psychologists have suggested that free play can lead to neural structure increases.

Improvements in language: Children learn to communicate by watching others, and the mimicry and repetition younger children use during unstructured play offer enhancements to their speech abilities and vocabulary.

Character Building Benefits

Builds trauma coping skills: Creative roleplay can help kids process and cope with events they find traumatic.

Minimises anxious feelings: The small risks kids take during unstructured free play help them feel more confident and reduce feelings of anxiety and stress when facing bigger challenges.

Understanding the outdoors: Time spent outdoors and exploring helps kids to develop a healthy respect for the power and beauty of their natural surroundings.

Self esteem improvement: When kids feel empowered to play the way that feels right for them, they feel validated in their identity and decisions.

Learning empathy: Free play with other children gives kids the opportunity to understand and empathise with their feelings unprompted.

Recognising danger: When children take age appropriate risks during play, they're less anxious in general and more alert to actual dangers.

Seeing differing viewpoints: In their self-expression, kids are likely to be greeted with - and learn from - the feelings and opinions of others.

Academic Benefits

Maths learning boost: Numerical concepts can be hard for kids, but free play with blocks and other toys can help introduce counting and mathematics early.

Doing well in school: A happy transition into pre-school sets the tone for their school years, and social and coping skills offered by free play help kids thrive in those early years.

Feeling good about school: Developing independence, social skills and intellectual curiosity early makes school more fun and less traumatic for younger kids.

Improved scholastic ability: Children who manage emotions and socialise well are often great learners who exceed scholastic expectations.

Social Benefits

Emotional management: Unstructured peer experiences quickly help kids see which emotional responses are accepted socially and which aren't.

Encourages leadership: When kids feel in control and confident personally and socially, natural leadership skills may emerge.

Improves group work: Social skills, empathy and emotional management help kids be a more effective part of a group or team.

Improves receptiveness to feedback: The social skills offered by free play make kids more open to suggestions and more able to give them in a polite and reasonable way.

And these are just the start. Here are a full 43 evidence-based benefits: