By Waheeda Essop (Occupational Therapist)

What is FREE PLAY?

Free play is when children have complete freedom to play in whatever way they want. It is unstructured, voluntary, child-initiated activity that allows children to develop their imaginations while exploring and experiencing the world around them. Free play can be extended to their choice of play materials, area of interest and even the plot of a game or scenario. Free play is the spontaneous play that comes naturally from children’s natural curiosity, love of discovery, and enthusiasm.



Free play encourages children to develop their imagination while using their creativity. Playing with toys that can only be used one way and passive activities like playing video games do not employ creativity as these have a set approach with rules that stipulate what one can and cannot do. With free play a child has all the options! He decides what and how to play with something, eliciting creativity and tapping into his/her imagination. 


Physical free play develops motor skills as children run, jump, and chase outdoors or play on a well-equipped playground. Swinging freely on overhead playground equipment develops upper body strength as well as agility, balance, eye-hand coordination, and fitness. Free play in outdoor activities engages more motor behaviours than in structured physical education classes as the spontaneity of play taps into their natural reflexes, balance skills and helps develop muscle tone. This in turn helps develop their coordination and agility.


When children play alone or independently, they can be more creative when they are playing by themselves. When a child is playing alone, they are engaging themselves and using their imagination. 

With free play a child’s taps into their own skill repertoire to find and grow new abilities. This develops their independence.  If this independence is nurtured from a young age, it will be beneficial later in life.

Pretending and role-playing during free play are important activities for children to expand their understanding of the world around them and prepares them for the adult world. 


Free play is important for developing judgement, logical thinking and problem solving skills. They learn to think ‘out of box’ and are outcome driven. Other cognitive skills such as memory, concentration, planning and foresight are also tapped into. 


Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your own behaviour and reactions. It helps children learn, behave well, get along with others and become independent. Self-regulation skills are foundational to successful participation in society, and predict a suite of positive outcomes throughout life. Self-regulation begins to develop rapidly in the toddler and preschool years and continues to grow until adulthood

It has long been asserted that free unstructured play is important for the development of self-regulation. A study from the Longitudinal Study Of Australian Children showed that the more time children spent in unstructured quiet play in the toddler and preschool years, the better their self-regulation abilities at ages 4–5 and 6–7 years. Further, between 1 and 5 hours of pre-schoolers’ unstructured active play time significantly predicted self-regulation 2 years later. 


Free unstructured play is effective in promoting children’s’ happiness and playfulness, both of which may help maintain mental health and wellbeing when faced with stressors such as transition and separation. 


  • An outdoor space. A playground or jungle gym, or even your backyard. Kids can play with whatever apparatus that captures their interest. If they are uncertain, use prompting questions like, “What does this do?” or, “what can we do with this?”. Having various balls and bats, as well as other gross motor play items would be of benefit. 
  • A blank canvas. A roll of paper, painting canvas, sheets of paper. Try not to instruct them on what to create. If they are unsure, have them reflect on their day or week’s happening, this may give them inspiration
  • Role-play tools. Items needed to roleplay such as a chalkboard for ‘teacher-teacher’ games or dolls/teddy bears for ‘mum’ games. Cooking roleplay also work well as kitchen items are easy to come by and it opens the door to endless roleplay scenarios. Dress-up items for make-believe also makes for fun free play.
  • Free-play toys. Toys such as building blocks, magnetic tiles and, kinetic sand offer a platform for unstructured play
  • Looking or reading books that do not form part of their academic studies.


  • A safe space. Make sure your child has a safe environment to play in by clearing play areas of any potential hazards and check in throughout playtime to make sure your little one is playing safely.
  • Listen to your child. Ask your child what he or she would like to do today. But offer a guide to help them make a choice. So say something like, “We will be at home today, what game would you like to play outside?” Based on how they respond, help create an environment where they can explore their interest. 
  • If kids cannot come up with ideas themselves. Have a few ‘platforms’ for free play ready. This could be some blank paper, their sand play tools at the sandbox or empty canvases. 
  • Give some clues and prompts along the way. When your child faces a problem, you can help guide them toward a solution by asking “What do you want to do? How can we solve this problem?” . We should avoid doing everything for the child, as much as its tempting. 
  • Make it a bonding activity. Just because your child is playing on their own doesn’t mean you can’t be engaged! If your child wants to play with you while you are busy working, try talking with them about something they can do on their own, and then when they are done you can look over it together. 


Free play is not just for littlies… older kids can also partake in this form of play and enjoy the many benefits. They may already be doing this!!

The difference with older children is that they’ve often gained numerous skills already and had a taste of their likes and dislikes. So their free play may occur in their own leisure activity time. Some of their free-play activities may include:

  • Doodling on a piece of paper
  • Drawing or painting
  • Construction play. Perhaps with Lego, magnetic tiles or Meccano. They may move on from structured builds and experiment with new creations
  • Dress-up and make-believe play. These may evolve into make-up artistry or dress designing
  • Reading books or magazines that interest them

With FREE PLAY children learn how to solve their own problems. They also develop social skills like sharing, listening to other’s ideas, give and take, and compromising. This gives them confidence and moulds them as leaders with an innate ability to guide others, have direction and strive towards their goals. 


  1. Iannelli.V, 2021, The importance of Free Play for Kids, Dotdash Media Inc, Viewed 9 June 2022, < >
  2. UNICEF, What is Free Play and why should you encourage it at Home, UNICEF, Viewed 9 June 2022, < >
  3. Colliver.Y, Harrison.L.J., Brown.J.E., Humburg.P., 2022. Free Play predicts Self-Regulation years later: Longitudinal Study from a large Australian sample of toddlers and preschoolers, Early Childhood Research Quarterly Volume 59 2nd Quarter. < >
  4. Play and Playground Encyclopedia, 2022, Free Play, Tribute Media, Viewed 9 June 2022, < >

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