Creative, Free Play Makes Kids Smarter, Better Socialized and Less Stressed

Sometimes I feel that I am not doing enough structured activity with my oldest daughter, who is almost 4 years old. I hear of children around me taking classes, going to preschool everyday and I fret like any parent: is my daughter missing something? What skills doesn’t she know yet?

But then I remember the importance of free, creative play. I inherently know this is good for her, but until now I didn’t know how good, and how supported by science the benefits are.

You’ve got to read this article from Scientific American. It details how allowing for creative free play actually develops your child’s creative problem solving, social and language skills, and may prevent the likelihood of kids developing in to “anxious, socially maladjusted adults”.

You’ve got to love Scientific American, too. They cite the animal studies to prove each point. This article is eye opening and affirming if you too, are trying to leave vast swaths of unstructured time in your child’s day.

Some highlights (Cliff Note version):

*Childhood play is crucial for social, emotional and cognitive ?development.

*Imaginative and rambunctious “free play,” as opposed to games or structured activities, is the most essential type.

*Kids and animals that do not play when they are young may grow into anxious, socially maladjusted adults.

What exactly is free play?

“The child initiates and creates free play. It might involve fantasies—such as pretending to be doctors or princesses or playing house—or it might include mock fighting, as when kids (primarily boys) wrestle and tumble with one another for fun, switching roles periodically so that neither of them always wins. And free play is most similar to play seen in the animal kingdom, suggesting that it has important evolutionary roots. Gordon M. Burghardt, author of The Genesis of Animal Play, spent 18 years observing animals to learn how to define play: it must be repetitive—an animal that nudges a new object just once is not playing with it—and it must be voluntary and initiated in a relaxed setting. Animals and children do not play when they are undernourished or in stressful situations. Most essential, the activity should not have an obvious function in the context in which it is observed—meaning that it has, essentially, no clear goal.”

Which is why my oldest plays with virtually no toy in the way it was designed to be played with. And this is good!

The article goes on to explain how free play alleviates stress, promotes good social skills, and language acquisition and creative problem solving.


“But why might play help kids excel? Animal researchers believe that play serves as a kind of training for the unexpected. “Play is like a kaleidoscope,” says evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff of the University of Colorado at Boulder, in that it is random and creative. The bottom line, he posits, is that play encourages flexibility and crea?tivity that may, in the future, be advantageous in unexpected situations or new environments. Some child psychologists, such as Tufts University child development expert David Elkind, agree. Play is “a way in which children learn,” Elkind says, “and in the absence of play, children miss learning experiences.””

I’m sold. I just highlighted some interesting points here, but the whole article is a great read for parents. In case you are too busy, here is the final message from a neuroscientist that studies free play:

“Parents should let children be children—not just because it should be fun to be a child but because denying youth’s unfettered joys keeps kids from developing into inquisitive, creative creatures, Elkind warns. “Play has to be reframed and seen not as an oppo?site to work but rather as a complement,” he says. “Curiosity, imagination and creativity are like muscles: if you don’t use them, you lose them.””

6 Responses to Creative, Free Play Makes Kids Smarter, Better Socialized and Less Stressed

  1. Anonymous February 6, 2009 at 11:11 am #

    NPR had a great segment on this topic last February. The article can be found at to the article is a list of suggestions and games. Here are a few thoughts from the article…"It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline….Today's 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today's 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago," Bodrova explains. "So the results were very sad."Sad because self-regulation is incredibly important….Good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. One reason make-believe is such a powerful tool for building self-discipline is because during make-believe, children engage in what's called private speech: They talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it…."So, I hope your kids have fun just playing!Julie

  2. Mommy Kong February 6, 2009 at 12:40 pm #

    Wow, what a relief. I've always felt a little guilty that my almost 2 year old doesn't have enough "structured activities." Now, I just won't fret about it anymore and just let him enjoy his free play time.

  3. mimiinpa February 6, 2009 at 5:34 pm #

    That's why empty cardboard boxes are the best toys, they can be anything from a ship, fort, etc.Toddlers usually play more with the box than the gift that was in it. Also dress up clothes stimulate creative play, any old discarded clothes, shoes etc will do.

  4. Katy Farber February 7, 2009 at 4:42 pm #

    Thanks for the NPR link! I think I heard a tidbit of this and it would be great to go back and hear it all. I'd like to see the games and tips section–made I'll post about it here. I know, Mommy Kong, free yourself from guilt!And Mimi, you speak the true. Simple is better– we barely have any toys out and they play and play with what's around. Thanks for commenting!Katy

  5. Anonymous February 8, 2009 at 6:21 am #

    Katy,Did you see the investigative report out of Utah about lead glaze on dishes and crockpots? Really concerning, especially since no recall has been issued and information on what brands/models is limited. Gephardt started investigating when a breastfed baby turned up with high level of lead and the source was discovered to be the dishes the mother was using. The link to the article is <a href="… />–Ave


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    […] written here before about the studies showing the many behavioral and academic benefits of unstructured free time for young children. We’ve learned that allowing for wide swaths of plan-less time for children allows them to tap […]

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