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Play is important! It can positively impact children in many ways, physically, emotionally, and mentally. So, how can parents encourage play? Keep reading to find out!


Mother and child build toy tower succes

Encouraging Play

Free, unstructured play is a play that occurs without rules or guidelines, such as sponge painting or building pillow forts. This type of play is incredibly important for children. Not only does it help strengthen independence, but it allows children to cultivate their imagination and creativity while also building problem-solving skills. It can also enable children to process their emotions and deal with the stress that life can throw their way.

When playing, children can work through fear and anxiety, helping them learn how to build resiliency. Neuroscientists have found that it can also physically positively impact the brain! Since free play is so important, how can parents encourage play in their children?

There are numerous ways that parents can help encourage free play for their children:

Set Screen Time Limits

More and more scientific evidence supports the notion that less screen time and more active playtime are good for children for myriad reasons. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of screen time per day.

Media is stimulating and engaging, almost instantaneously, while active play is not always as instantly immersive. It can take children a while to work up to enjoying playtime, so setting screen time limits can help with this transition. But once children are playing, it can be highly rewarding for them!

Ways to limit screen time can include slowly cutting it down by fifteen-minute increments per day until you reach the desired time allowance. Or, try setting a timer or limiting children to a single episode of a loved show. By cutting down screen time, children won’t always rely on digital stimulation to fill their time when they get bored.

Let Your Child Get Bored

Children need to feel bored sometimes. For children to freely play, they first have to get bored so they can come up with ideas to overcome that boredom. It’s important to resist the urge to guide your children when they come to you and tell you that they are bored. Figuring out ways to fill their time is part of the process of free play.

Lead by Example

Do you have free play activities that you engage in? Maybe you draw, read or scrapbook during your downtime. Or, perhaps you like to knit when you can. Even walking or gardening counts as adult “free play.” Modeling these activities teaches children how important it is to play throughout their lifetime.

Provide Open-Ended Toys

Providing your child with simple, open-ended toys is a great way to encourage their free play. These toys are ones that need the imagination to make them work. Great examples of open-ended toys include:

  • Lego
  • blocks
  • dolls
  • action figures
  • cars
  • balls
  • art supplies

When children have to create their own rules for their toys, it encourages their imagination to grow.

Be Positive About Play

Children love and respond well to positive reinforcement. They also likely already engage in free play every day. One great way to encourage more of that free play is by praising your child when he or she is playing. Try commenting on a fun pillow fort or dollhouse made of blocks that your child constructed. Not only will it help build self-esteem in your child, but it will encourage more free play in the future.

Invite Friends

Playing with others can help stimulate children to play freely by allowing for spontaneous activities to take place. Creating games together can be more fun when others can be involved. Encourage your child to participate in these activities by inviting over friends or asking the neighborhood kids to join in the fun.

The Importance of Outdoor Play

Advocates of children widely support the importance of children and outdoor play: doctors, therapists, scientists, and teachers, to name a few. Playing outdoors is critical to children’s development because it provides many benefits, ranging from physical health to emotional well-being. It also leads to a decrease in screen time for children, which can help fight off diseases and expend pent-up energy.

Overall Health

Being outdoors is healthy in many ways. When children move their physical bodies, it can help bolster their cardiovascular endurance by increasing the heart rate. Since obesity in America is growing, and beginning at an earlier age due to a more sedentary lifestyle, encouraging children to play outside has become even more important. Getting children to put down digital devices to engage in physical movement outdoors increases their heart rate and can help prevent childhood obesity.

Another great benefit of children and outdoor play is that children get sick less often. Many studies show that illnesses spread more quickly in the colder months because people spend longer periods of time inside. Help combat the spread of disease by taking advantage of outdoor spaces.

Being outside allows infectious germs to dissipate, preventing the spread of illness. In addition, it increases children’s exercise, keeping them physically healthier and more able to fight off illness if they do get sick.

Learning About the Outside World

Another positive benefit of children and outdoor play is that they learn about our world in a fun way. Children are naturally curious about the world around them. While they can learn about the world in many different ways, discovering things through observation and playing outdoors is often more fun and effective.

The outdoors can teach children about plants, animals, math, weather, science, and gardening, just to name a few. When children learn through discovery, they often retain it better since they learned it in a more personal, meaningful way.

Encouraging a Variety of Play

When you encourage children and outdoor play, they can partake in a variety of different activities. Playgrounds and other outdoor spaces allow children to shout, run, make a mess, jump, whistle, and hide while interacting with the natural environment. Hiking trails and parks allow children to explore nature in various ways that being indoors does not. They can watch animals and insects, climb trees and roll down grassy hills, or view natural waterways.  These types of play are impossible to enjoy while indoors.

Constructive Play

Another great advantage of children and outdoor play is the increase in constructive play. This type of play occurs when children create things by manipulating the environment around them.  This could include playing with materials such as bubbles, sand, and sidewalk chalk. Research shows that children love constructive play and that it can help bolster their imagination.


Socialization, or learning to play and work well with others, are important life skills for youngsters to learn. By playing outside with others, children can practice:

  • making friends
  • sharing
  • how to treat others
  • the value of cooperation.

While organized activities like sports and school recess can provide important values for children, they cannot offer everything that children need to learn. Unstructured time outside allows children to socialize freely in a way that organized activities do not.

Play is Essential

Indoor and outdoor, unstructured play is essential for the positive well-being of children. Not only does it help their physical bodies, but their mental health as well. Encourage your child to stay off digital devices and use their imagination through play to engage in the world around them! You will not regret it!

Check out how Elliot’s unstructured play leads to exciting adventures in the Elliot’s Adventures book series for young children.

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