Friday, April 3, 2009

“Free Play”: is this a new school activity?

On a Sunday evening this past summer I was hanging out with about ten 5th grade boys at a campfire where we were grilling up some hotdogs. One of the boys went over to grab an armful of firewood. When he returned, he mentioned that he had an idea for a game we could play. He explained that we could slide the lid off the firewood box to create a gap at the top. We all needed to find three pinecones. We gathered our pinecones and got in line. We each had three throws to see who could get their pinecones through the gap in the box. We played one round when another boy spoke up and said that we needed a point system. Two other boys then suggested that if your cone goes in the gap of the box you get 3 points, if the cone lands and stays on the lid you get 2 points, and if the cone just hits the box you get 1 point. The game went on for an hour. We continued to play this game every Sunday during the summer and every time I line up to toss my pinecone, I am playing with a new set of rules. This is what I call “Free Play.”

“Free Play,” as scientists call it, is vital for children. Many children today do not have time to just play. Some are scheduled every minute of the day. According to a paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, children’s free-play time dropped by 25% between 1981 and 1997. Some parents are concerned about getting their kids into the right colleges at age 5; they are sacrificing playtime for more structured school and sports activities. Pre-school children are being enrolled in after-school music and drama classes. This crazy busy schedule is reducing time for the type of imaginative and rambunctious interaction that fosters creativity and cooperation.

Let’s give our children time to play, create, and innovate. Let’s provide our children with a foundation which helps them grow into high functioning, healthy adults. Let’s take our children outside and hand them a stick, a ball, and a box and see what game they create. 

What is “Free Play” to you?




  1. This is a great article I recently read in Woman's Day Magazine. The author talks about kids using sticks in what she calls "symbolic play." Nature offers a vast number of opportunities for free and symbolic play. It is discouraging that there are adults trying to limit children's imagination.

  2. Check out this article in the New York Times.

    The 3 R’s? A Fourth Is Crucial, Too: Recess