The importance of play for children’s intellectual, physical, and social development has been well documented. And lack of play has been linked to a variety of issues, including obesity, ADHD, anxiety and depression.

Yet free play is fast disappearing, in light of drastic changes in our society: a rise in dual-income and single parent homes; heightened societal anxieties about safety; the proliferation of media and screen entertainment; and an increase in structured academic programming at younger ages.

An alternative is offered in an approach called Natural Learning, pioneered in the 1960’s by educator John Holt. Holt saw structure and pressure as inhibiting learning. Rather children develop best if allowed to follow their own curiosity at their own pace, learning through play and exploration—both intrinsically rewarding activities

Yet even parents who see play as a necessity may struggle to make it happen in our rushed and distracting world. While acknowledging the irony of scheduling a spontaneous activity, psychologist Larry Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, says the first step is to set aside time for free play “It won’t happen unless we actually schedule time when there is no other agenda except play.”

Time is essential not just because free play requires leisurely exploration, but because play, learning and bonding are inextricably linked. “Children need to be safe and secure to learn best,” Cohen says, “and that comes from lots and lots of closeness and interaction between parent and child.”

Using the concept of Natural Play as inspiration, here are some expert tips for creating play opportunities in your home:

  1. Observe what produces a sense of wonder in your children and then offer options to build on that excitement. If your child is passionate about dinosaurs, why stop with a plastic toy or trip to a natural history museum?  Purchase fossils on the Internet to investigate at home, or search for them in backyards/parks. Check out the local paleontological society and go on a dig.
  2. Respect your child’s interests. Rather than dismiss your daughter’s attraction to sparkles as girly, enjoy the glitz with her. Perhaps she is curious about color and light and will respond to prisms, minerals, or “gems.” If so, get her a compartmentalized box to store her treasures. Such mini museums are a great way to organize and dignify an interest. Even if your child loves cartoons, avoid value judgments.Notice what drives the attraction; a sense of humor, or a strong visual sense? Reflecting that back helps the child to know herself and build on that interest or talent.
  3. Make home a rich learning environment. Fill it with toys, art supplies, books, etc., especially those that build on the child’s interests. Think of these as educational materials. (Thrift stores and Freecycle can be cheap/free sources.) Provide space for your children to experiment and make messes, as well as a safe place for roughhousing.
  4. Treat media as another resource. When young children have questions, turn not just to books, but also You Tube videos for answers. Gradually introduce movies and TV shows on topics of interest. Your budding scientist may enjoy programs on National Geographic and Nova. Watch with her to answer questions and share the enthusiasm. (Keep in mind that media can be addictive and eat into time for old-fashioned play, so exposure should be limited and shared with an adult.)
  5. Share your passions. Take your child into garden, kitchen, workshop, etc., as soon as possible. Even if engaged in parallel play, she will be examining tiny critters, experiencing new tastes, manipulating tools, and gaining comfort and competence in the world. And you will be modeling that play has value throughout life.
  6. Know when to step back. Free play needs to be child directed. Offer options to extend play, but if the child doesn’t respond enthusiastically, drop it. No need to teach specific content. Asking how many wheels a truck has creates tension, says Cohen. “Just playing in sand with a truck, the child will learn everything he needs to know and learn it better.”
  7. Play with your children. It is often sufficient for parents to be nearby or to step in and out of children’s play. But Cohen recommends planning some concentrated time with your child daily. Cohen suggests setting a timer for half an hour if you can, but fifteen minutes will do. “Let the child take the lead. Give 100% full attention and extra enthusiasm. No chores or checking email.”

As parents observe their children and find ways to support play, they help them to discover their passions and engage deeply with the world around them.  In turn, parents enter more fully into their children’s world through observation and play. All this strengthens the parent-child bond. In short, an increased focus on play benefits the whole family.