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How Does Free Play Help Kids Learn?

Updated: Sep 11, 2019

Give them the chance, and kids can find fun almost anywhere. One minute, they’re sailing through a living room of lava in laundry hamper ship, and the next, they’ve flipped their bicycles and are whipping up imaginary ice cream with the spinning spokes. This kind of fun and games might look like, well, it’s all just fun and games, but actually, it serves some pretty important purposes. Through free play, our kids learn valuable skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives.

It might seem hard to believe that pretending to be wizards or creating a Grand Prix in the driveway could actually be teaching our kids anything. Many parents tend to associate learning with books rather the backyard – and if you’re one of them, you may have questions like:

  • How does free play help kids learn?

  • What kinds of skills can kids learn from free play?

  • Why is free play so important for little kids?

In HelloJoey’s “The Mysteries of Make Believe Play” series, we look at the functional purpose of playtime and the role it plays in our kids’ development. We also talk to experts and explore how free play helps kids learn to think critically, solve problems, and process and communicate their emotions.

How play helps kids learn thinking skills

Little kids are constantly creating rich imaginative worlds – and “borrowing” anything they can find to use as props. You might not appreciate it when you’re searching for your broom, but when your kid rides the handle like a pony, they’re demonstrating a complex ability that’s laying the groundwork for high-level, mature thinking. Using one object to represent something else is called symbolic play, and it helps us learn the advanced critical thinking skills we use everyday.

This process starts simply – with the first time you say “ring-ring” and your preschooler reaches for a banana. That’s called object representation, and as professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development Dr. Stephanie Carlson explains, “Once they have this ability to represent objects, they are able to play around with those representations.” That playing around is what eventually allows us to understand literary themes or do improv.

Once we’ve mastered making simple symbolic connections, then we learn to read facial expressions to understand what other people are thinking or saying. After that, we learn to understand complex metaphors in literature and develop the ability to play games that require us to think critically – like Clue – or broaden our ability to understand others’ perspectives – like charades. It all starts with that broom-handle pony.

How play teaches problem-solving

Along with helping to develop thinking skills, free play also helps kids learn how to problem-solve. Remember the last time you asked your boss for a raise or confronted your partner about those dishes left in the sink? You probably prepared by running through the conversation in your head, imagining how they might respond, and coming up with your own responses. Essentially, you created imaginary solutions to imaginary problems with your imagination.

You got these skills when you were a child, and you got them the same way your own child is getting them now – from play. When your kids pretend, they’re considering the world from someone else’s perspective, and they’re learning the connection between cause and effect – even if they’re stretching reality while they do it. Pretend play is so beneficial for learning that recent research shows that even a little time spent pretending – less than 10 minutes – helps kids improve their performance on tasks that challenge their executive function capabilities, which are the skills that help people manage their thoughts, behavior, and emotions.

App Tip

How free play helps kids learn thinking and problem-solving skills is clear, but those aren’t the only benefits. It’s also a way our littlest ones can process their experiences and emotions – and then communicate them. Psychologist Dr. Ruth Burtman stresses that, especially for kids ages three to five, free play is a tool that helps them express themselves. “Children aren't able to verbalize their internal world, so they play out their emotions. They communicate their needs and struggles, discover ways to cope, and play out their challenges – or even traumas.”

Plus, by promoting and supporting free play, you can help your child see the world through the eyes of others; handle their emotions without outbursts; organize their thoughts and think critically; and learn how to communicate problems – and how to solve them.

Learn more about “The Mysteries of Make Believe Play" and start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.

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