As parents with young children, there is always the push (slight or strong) for us to ensure they are excelling in every way at a higher level because that way they will breeze through school, and thank us profusely in their sappy valedictorian speech.

The pressure is on. The pressure comes from all sides. You buy the flash cards, the European wooden toys and the recommended Apps, enroll them in team sports, and only let them view the children’s programs that have subliminal learning embedded between the bright colours and classical music.

When you take a deep breath and step back, you look at your child and chances are they have found a way to amuse themselves with a block, a crumb and a fart joke. Children can only be molded in so many ways and the emerging data about the importance of free play cannot be ignored.

“One of the greatest attributes of play is the opportunities it affords for learning to live with not knowing: we all learn more effectively through trial and error, and play is a non-threatening way to cope with new learning and still retain self-esteem and self-image – NICHED (National Institute of Childcare and Education)

Play. It sounds so obvious and simple, but as adults, we sometimes forget how to play. For children though, left to their own devices, free play is second nature. Really, children’s work is their play.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Clinical Report on The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds, in addition to being important to healthy brain development, the benefits of free play include:

  • allowing kids to use their creativity and develop their imagination, dexterity, and other strengths
  • encouraging kids to interact with the world around them
  • helping kids conquer their fears and build their confidence
  • teaching kids to work in groups, so they learn to share and resolve conflicts
  • helping kids practice decision making skills

Keep in mind that free play isn’t ballet or hockey lessons; free play is beautifully unstructured time. The hidden joy to free play is pure unadulterated fun! An afternoon spent poking around a trail in Burnaby’s green spaces, or a lazy afternoon exploring in one of the Burnaby Public Library branches (with whispered voices of course) is a great way to let them lead the way with some free play.

Closer to home, a rainy morning spent at the kitchen table with a pile of paper scraps, craft supplies and markers with no planned outcome can lead to some magical masterpieces. A pile of Lego, blankets and pillows with no instructions other than “let’s create a fortress for eating grilled cheese sandwiches in,” will result in a fun afternoon of creativity and problem-solving.

Allow children to create their own free play too. Play allows a young child to be “in charge.” In their everyday lives, they’re at our feet and always being told what to do, and how to do it. Without an adult around, they’re the boss of their play. As long as they are in a safe spot, their time sparking their imaginations is a great time for parents to sit back with some tea and a favourite book. It might just be a 15 minute window in your day, but this time is so valuable for everyone.

With all the ideas now swirling in your brain, remember this – this is all about play, it shouldn’t be a struggle. Something as simple as a funny face competition is play and we all know how much our kids love when we get down on the ground with them and get silly too.

Surely there are studies that prove when adults play, our stress and adult responsibilities gently fade away and our good mood is buoyed. That right there is just another amazing reason to carve out some time every day for some free play for your child and your family.

If you want some community inspiration, the Burnaby Parks and Rec website is a great resource for free play opportunities both indoors and out.

We’d love to know – how do you and your family encourage free play? Is it something you’re mindful of and make time for every day?

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