Free play is absolutely essential to a child’s mental health—when children are involved in activities that are freely chosen and directed by them, they undergo healthy psychological development.
Research indicates that free play helps children learn, develop, and perfect new skills that build competence, master anxiety (i.e. help them build the capacity to cope with their environment), enhance the strength of their ego, and fuel their investment in life.
Value free play.
No matter how old your child is, allow your child the liberty to play freely. View it as a developmental necessity, and identify where you can allow your child more freedom.
Know your child.
Define what degree of freedom your child is ready for—identify the amount of time, the location, and the type of activity your child will be allowed during their free play time.
Create agreements with other parents.
Your child will want to play with other children, so collaborate with other parents to ensure your child will have someone to play with.
Stimulate their imagination with toys.
Offer your child (and their friends!) toys and other materials that foster imaginative play. For example, give them a box full of a thousand Lego bricks and allow them to build whatever comes to mind. Or, give them wooden blocks, plastic cups, fabrics, dolls, and other arts and crafts materials. Let their imagination run wild!
Create space between you and your child.
Allow your child the freedom to decide what they want to do during their free play time. Refrain from hovering over them; if you must observe them, observe them from a greater distance than usual. If your child gets into a dispute with another child, allow the two of them to work it out, and don’t step in unless it is absolutely necessary.
Wince, don’t pounce.
Your child might get hurt while playing freely, but that’s okay! Be there to hug them or provide a Band-Aid if necessary, but don’t try to prevent them from getting hurt altogether.