How to develop your child’s creativity, autonomy, and self-confidence: Encourage free play!
Structured play helps children develop their attention and understand rules, but they also need free play. For one thing, free play allows them to learn many things. Discover the benefits of free play and tips to encourage it.
What is free play?
Free play: Is it natural? (in French)
Free play means a child chooses for themselves what they play, with whom, with what objects, and how. In other words, with free play, the child chooses, creates, and organizes games according to their own preferences and fields of interest. Consequently, they follow their own ideas without having a specific objective or result in mind or any time constraints.
The advantages of free play
- Fosters the child’s overall development. From an early age, it is by playing that a young child learns most. Free play has positive effects on their entire development. This type of play helps the child develop their language, thinking, and problem-solving ability, improves their motor skills, and they learn to get along with others.
- Builds their self-confidence. During free play, a child can try all kinds of things, as the absence of rules offers a world of possibility. They can thus take the initiative for the game and decide whatever they want. This allows them to feel more in control of their environment and thus develops their self-confidence. They also get to know themselves better and to discover what is fun, what they like, and what they do not like.
- Develops their social skills. Playing with other children, without adults participating in the game, teaches the child to assert themselves, to control their emotions and impulses, to negotiate with others, and to make friends.
- Stimulates their autonomy. Free play can help a child depend less on their parents since it forces them to make choices on their own. They can then decide by themselves what to do and how to do it, and therefore have less difficulty having fun alone.
- Promotes problem solving. During free play, the child will have to find solutions to the problems they encounter. They learn how to react to difficult situations.
Of course as a parent, you can suggest ideas for games to your child. Simply make sure that they remain in control of their activity.
- Fosters creative thinking. Free play allows the child to use the same object in several ways, depending on their imagination. A piece of fabric can become a tablecloth to set the dinner table, a superhero cape, a canvas, or a doll’s blanket. The child thus develops their creativity.
- Encourages learning by playing with others. Children learn a lot from each other during free play. Parents sometimes believe that children can only learn if an adult shows them how. Yet they can learn from their brother, sister, cousins, or friends.
When a problem occurs
When your child encounters a problem during play, they may become accustomed to turning to you. To help them develop their autonomy, ask them to come up with their own solutions. If your child is very upset, you can first use humour to de-escalate the situation. If they are too frustrated, suggest several solutions and ensure they make the final choice.
How to promote free play
It is possible to encourage free play for your child. Here is some advice to promote this type of game.
- Make time for free play by leaving open spots in your child’s day where they have the opportunity to entertain themselves.
- Show your child that playing is important to you. Remind them that this is a good way to have fun using their imagination. You can also ask them questions after their game to find out what they were doing and show them you are interested.
- Give them time to create during free play. A child needs at least 15 minutes to create a game. Ideally, give them even more time so that they can create, develop, and end the game on their own terms.
- Encourage them when they have fun alone. For example, tell them: “That’s beautiful what you made! What is it?” or “Wow, your game looks fun with your teddy bears!”
- Make sure your child can have fun in a safe space.
- Leave different materials at their fingertips that they can use in several different ways to play, e.g., cubes, toy cars, cardboard boxes, a suitcase of costumes, or modelling clay, all of which are good choices to trigger your child’s creativity.
- Avoid intervening when your child is playing alone, as it could interrupt such moments of creativity. However, if they invite you to participate in their game, accept the role your child gives you and let them guide you.
- Bring your child to play outside often. Outdoor environments promote free play, among other reasons because your child has more space to have fun and access to a variety of materials (e.g., dirt, sand, stone, branch, tree trunk).
The benefits of outdoor free play
When your child has fun outside, they also take small risks, such as climbing a rock, walking on a tree trunk, or climbing a tree. This risk taking is important for their development, as it allows them to test their limits, get to know their physical abilities, and develop their self-confidence.
Outdoor free play also promotes contact with nature. For example, your child can observe insects or small animals, feel the texture of trees, and smell the leaves. This develops their curiosity, knowledge, and even language, because it can spur them to talk more and ask questions.
Your child can also become very creative through their free play outside. They do not necessarily need toys; they use elements of nature to have fun. For example, they could use a branch as if it were a broom and turn it into a fork or magic wand as they play.
Lastly, outdoor play has benefits for your child’s mental health. Moving more helps them sleep better, and this has a positive effect on their mood. Studies have also shown that contact with nature produces a general sense of well-being. This relieves stress and allows them to be more attentive and focused at other times.
To learn more about outdoor play, consult our fact sheet: Everybody outside!
Things to keep in mind
Free play promotes your child’s creativity, autonomy, and confidence.
Your child is more active during free play outside. They also get to know their own limitations and physical abilities.
To promote free play, you need to plan times when there is nothing on the schedule and give your child time to create their games.
Scientific review: Mathieu Point, professor, Faculty of Education Sciences, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: October 2021.
Photos: GettyImages coffekai and HappyKids
Useful links and resources
Note: Hyperlinks to other sites are not updated on a continuous basis. Thus, some links may not work. In such case, use the search tools to find specific information.
CANADIAN PUBLIC HEALTH ASSOCIATION. “Children’s Unstructured Play: Position Statement.” 2019, 12 pp. cpha.ca
ENCYCLOPEDIA ON EARLY CHILDHOOD DEVELOPMENT. “Why should play be a part of all children’s life?” 2013. child-encyclopedia.com
FERLAND, Francine. Et si on jouait? Le jeu au cœur du développement de l’enfant. 3rd ed., Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2018, 240 pp.
FERLAND, Francine. Viens jouer dehors! Pour le plaisir et la santé. Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, Montreal, 122 pp.
HEWES, Jane. “Let the Children Play: Nature’s Answer to Early Learning.” child-encyclopedia.com
MACNAMARA, Deborah. Jouer, grandir et s’épanouir : le rôle de l’attachement dans le développement de l’enfant. Les Éditions au Carré, 2017, 309 pp.
ROJO, Sébastien. “Jeu libre, risque et nature : un triptyque développemental gagnant,” Revue préscolaire, 58 (4), fall 2020, pp. 3031. aepqkiosk.milibris.com
TABLE SUR LE MODE DE VIE PHYSIQUEMENT ACTIF. “À nous de jouer! L’extérieur, un terrain de jeu complet.” 2018, 28 pp. tmvpa.com
VANDERLOO, Leigh M. et al. “Physical activity among preschoolers during indoor and outdoor childcare play periods,” Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, 38 (11), November 2013, pp. 11731175. cdnsciencepub.com