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Our Favorite Toys for Free Play (And Why Free Play Is Super Important)

Kids need free play now more than ever — here's why, plus a few awesome ways to unleash their imaginations!

Erica Silverstein · about 2 months ago

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Piano lessons on Monday, soccer practice on Wednesday, and coding class on Thursday. Swim team on Saturdays, and weekend time devoted to catching up on shows and playing video games with friends. What’s missing from your family’s jam-packed schedule? Free play.

Child development experts tell us that play is how kids learn and grow, both physically and emotionally, but the right kind of play makes a difference. Discover what free play is, why it’s important, and how you can encourage your kids to have even more good-for-them fun.

What Is Free Play, and Why Does It Matter?

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Free play is any child-led, unstructured play that includes a mix of imaginative and physical pursuits. It's play that lets kids make active decisions about what they're doing, making, building, or creating. Passively watching cartoons and YouTube videos is basically free play’s total opposite.

Free play can start with a great idea (let’s build an enormous tower!) or a fit of boredom that motivates kids to create their own fun. Free play doesn't necessarily mean solo play — it can be done alone, in pairs, or with a gaggle of neighborhood kids. Even parents can participate, but it’s not free play unless the kids are taking the lead and making the rules. That's right: When you don a mask to play sidekick to your kid’s super-alien-princess-soldier alter-ego, you're actually helping them learn and grow through play. (While saving the universe. Bonus!) 

While it’s tempting to fill kids’ free time with scheduled activities or screen time, child development experts emphasize that downtime and free play are super important for kids’ social, emotional, and physical development. Why? Because child-led play (especially in a group setting) encourages kids to develop a huge range of skills, from problem solving, communication, and conflict resolution to leadership, collaboration, and turn taking. Music lessons and sports teams are also important to kids’ development, but kids still need unstructured free play time to bang around on the piano or head outside to join in backyard games.

Love the idea of free play but not sure where to begin? Here are a few kinds of free play you can encourage your kids to pursue, plus some free play inspiration that will ignite creativity, exploration, and hours of fun.

Role Play and Dress-Up

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Dress-up and role play stretches kids’ imaginations while they try on new personas and practice skills like leadership, communication, and collaboration — especially when their imaginative games include friends, siblings, and caregivers. Every time your kid-turned-space-ship-captain comes up with a plan to defeat the evil three-headed aliens, assigning tasks to and resolving disputes between her crew, her brain gains a galaxy full of new skills.

Little kids might start out making a train out of chairs or hosting a teddy bear picnic before graduating to elaborate magical scenarios. Tweens and teens could organize a play or skit, writing their own script or staging friends and younger siblings in a production for a holiday get-together, or gather friends for an ongoing Dungeons and Dragons game.

Free Building

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Junior engineers can flex their fine-motor muscles, as well as their problem solving skills, with building toys like LEGOs and Magna-Tiles. Deciphering how to construct a tall tower that won’t collapse or create a dinosaur out of rectangular bricks engages the brain in analytical thinking. The trial and error needed to find that perfect design are skills your kid will use throughout their life.

Free building for little kids might be as simple as stacking blocks, while older kids will build complex creations of their own design. To inspire creative construction, offer kids an array of building toys beyond the popular LEGOs, so they can try their hand at making helicopters from flexible, magnetic shapes or simple machines from an assortment of gears.

Arts and Crafts

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What can kids create with a pile of pom-poms and pipe cleaners, wooden shapes, clay, colored pencils, and embroidery floss? Unique art, a sense of accomplishment, personal expression, and a small (or giant) mess. 

Creative free play is key to self expression and mental health. Kids can work through difficult feelings through their art, especially with sensory materials such as clay or the soothing repetition of sewing or weaving. Manipulating a crayon or carefully laying down a line of glue works fine-motor skills, and tearing out knitting stitches only to try again gives teens a needed lesson in perseverance and overcoming adversity. 

Plus, the rewards of hard work are evident when kids finally finish that watercolor painting or felt puppet. Their creation is unique to them; only their imagination could produce that piece of art, empowering them to share their ideas without hesitation.

Active Play

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Active free play promotes gross and fine motor skill development without the adult interference of a P.E. class or sports clinic. Plus, it can get the kids out in fresh air and nature, stimulating their senses.

From a crazy version of tag involving playground balls and bubble wands to a teen pickup game of street hockey, kids can get a workout while working on teamwork, rule-setting, and independence. Without an adult micromanaging, kids are free to pursue their own versions of sports and try out roles as referee and team captain. Teens zooming around the neighborhood on bikes or scooters learn self-reliance, including how not to get lost and how to handle emergencies such as punctured tires and sidewalk scrapes.

Open-ended active free play toys can be as simple as a ball or jump rope or as elaborate as an epic treehouse swing set that keeps the kids running, climbing, and jumping outside for hours.

Imaginative Play

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Kids need to process Big Feelings, like how scary their bedroom can seem at night or why it’s hard to be a big sibling. Free play with dolls, stuffies, toy cars, and wooden trains can help them act out different scenarios and work through their emotions. Plus, an adorable friend is always up for a cuddle when you most need one.

Little kids have no problem spending hours playing with their doll house or zooming cars around the floor. But what about older kids? Making their own movies out of LEGO mini-figs or clay figures can be an age-appropriate way to engage in imaginative play.