How to encourage free play in an over-scheduled world

Throughout the year, I read many parenting pieces, several of which lament the over-scheduled, too-structured lives of our children. They wax poetic about the good ole days of playing outside until it got dark, inventing wacky games and the general ease of a childhood long gone. In the same pieces, those same writers lament about all of the activities they have to schlep to, the numerous play dates they’d rather not do and how they are exhausted from what they have presumed they must be in today’s parenting climate.


But, there is hope.

In my short time as a mom, I have seen more push back against the over-scheduled, helicopter-style parenting of the past decade or so. The free-range movement is gaining popularity, and more parents are embracing the idea of “less is more.” We are tired of being tired, and we want our kids to have the less structured childhood we remember so fondly.

If we want our kids to have a “freer” childhood, we have to make it possible.

Don’t do all the things

My five-year-old participates in two after-school activities: piano lessons and Hebrew School, each for one day a week, piano for 30 minutes and Hebrew School for two hours. This leaves about 10 hours give or take of open time during the school week for free play, school work and necessary boredom.

I’ll admit that our summer, at least the first half was a bit busier for my oldest, who spent most of his day at camp, but I made sure to give him plenty of downtown. Even as our children’s activities increase, I still think it is possible to squeeze in a few hours of unstructured time here and there.

In that vain, I try to keep our weekends as activity free as possible, as well. And, that often means saying no to more than one party a weekend. I realize this might get tougher to stick to, as my kids get older, but I think there is an important lesson to be learned in making choices and prioritizing what’s important. I also, believe it is OK, to say, “no” and upset our kids once in a while.

Re-think play dates

When my kids were both really small, I didn’t understand the “play date culture.” I would hear about parents/caregivers who would sit around staring at one another, or awkwardly engaging in small talk, while their kids played for a set amount of time in a designated area. The whole thing seemed miserable to me, and I just didn’t get it at all. Granted, I believe I can get along with almost anyone, but I just can’t imagine actively agreeing to spend time with another adult I don’t want to be with just so our kids can play together.

Even if we don’t always get along, I think there are ways to make these get-togethers work for everyone and encourage free play. When the weather is nice, the park is a wonderful option. My son recently met up with one of his classmates, and myself and the her mom each brought our other kids. Although, we do get along wonderfully, there was no pressure to sit and chat, as we each had other children to attend to. Our kids were also free to play as they pleased, with one another or with the other kids at the park. We often had little idea what they were up to, and that’s okay!

During colder months, taking play dates to the library, museums or indoor playgrounds can offer opportunities for free exploration with appropriate guidance.

Embrace boredom

I get it, bored kids often mean trouble, as many children left to their own devices will find the most destructive activity possible. I’m guilty of feeling obligated to entertain my kids all the time, and this is especially true with my oldest, who seems to have the hardest time playing on his own. I can attribute this to his personality, but I need to look inward as well. Rather than dealing with a whiny child, I was too quick to seek a way to appease him. Better late than never I say, and I now make a concerted effort to encourage him to come up with his own activities. Yes, I do get some whining, but I have learned to power through, knowing my smart, creative child is perfectly capable of dealing with his own boredom.

I am amazed by what my kids are able to accomplish when they have “nothing to do.” I have witnessed my little one master puzzles and my oldest build incredible structures out of LEGO pieces. I see their minds working, and it is truly inspiring.

Leave them alone

Ultimately, the best way to encourage our kids to embrace free play is to give them the space to do so. And, depending on their age/maturity level, this means letting them out of our sight. It means letting our children play in our yards, while we occasionally glance out of the window. It means, checking our phones or reading a book, while our kids roam about the playground. None of which, is possible, if other adults feel compelled to shame parents for trying to give their kids a little bit of freedom.

However, and this may seem contradictory, I do think adults in general need to embrace a more collective mindset when it comes to the welfare of our children. While, I don’t think it is right to judge another parent for letting her kid wander around alone at the park, I think it should be more socially acceptable to approach that child, and see if they are okay. What’s more, I think all adults should feel okay about speaking directly to any kid who might be acting inappropriately. As a mom who is trying to raise independent children, I don’t always have eyes on them, and I need others to step in and not be afraid to confront them if they are misbehaving. At the same time, I need other parents to be comfortable with me doing the same with their children. It is this type of shared trust and sense of community, which enabled us to have those freer childhoods in the first place.


1 thought on “How to encourage free play in an over-scheduled world

  1. Pingback: “The Sandlot” mom is spot on about free play | Maybe I'll Shower Today

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