The Hidden Power of Free Play

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If you’re looking to give your kids a leg up when it comes to skill-building, coordination and the development of social skills, then encouraging participation in sports may be the answer. When your children are toddlers and too young for organized sports, head to the playground for some free play.

Goofing around is good for you

Allowing kids to run, climb, jump and just be a kid on their own terms is one of the most important ways you can help your kids start building the skills they will need to be successful, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Active, free play is very beneficial,” says Dr. Carolyn Kienstra, a pediatric sports medicine specialist with the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute. “I recommend taking them to a playground with equipment for climbing and testing out different muscles. This lets them use their body in different ways for balance, coordination and other skill-building.”

Studies continue to that participation in organized youth sports offers a myriad of benefits, particularly when the focus is on fun.

Sports participation leads to improved hand-eye coordination, development of physical skills, academic improvement and increased strength, according to research in the June 2019 issue of the journal Pediatrics. Organized sports also had social benefits for participating kids, including enhanced social identity and social adjustment.

Encouraging free play

The Nemours Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to children’s health, recommends that children ages 2 to 3 get at least an hour of unstructured free play every day, as well as at least 30 minutes of adult-led physical activity. They also recommend that children this age not be inactive for more than an hour a day when not sleeping.

Considering how important free play is to development, Dr. Kienstra recommends making it a priority. If your children are in child care, you’ll want to ensure that your child care providers are making time for unstructured free play in their schedule each day. There are also creative ways to work it into your busy schedule at home, as well.

“Most parks have a playground or a field where you can let your child play while you get a walk in close by and still keep an eye on them,” says Dr. Kienstra.

Free play youth team sports.
Free play prepares youth for team sports.

From unstructured to structured play

Unstructured free play and structured sports may seem like opposite concepts, but Dr. Kienstra says that promoting free play in your toddlers may just lead to success on the field as they grow older.

“We know that free play helps improve coordination, balance, muscle strength and endurance,” she says. “All of that is beneficial as children make the transition into organized sports.”

As young children first begin participating in sports, Dr. Kienstra says it’s important to let your children try a variety of sports and keep the focus on fun. “Early on, kids should spend the majority of their time in practice and skill acquisition rather than games,” she says. “It should be about 75 percent practice and 25 percent games, at least at first. They can start playing more games as they transition into middle school and beyond.”

 


Wyatt Myers is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.