The Value of Free Play

Have you ever heard of the term “executive function?” Sounds like something Republicans and Democrats would argue over, doesn’t it? But in child development research, it refers to the ability of a child to plan, self-regulate, consider an option, and make a decision. New studies, and my own experience, suggest that children gain this highly valuable skill through free play. Good child care centers include in the schedule plenty of time for free play, undirected by adults and teachers.

An increasing trend in our country is to schedule every moment of our children’s day and year. In the past, children spent lots of time playing games of their own invention. More and more, children move from one structured time to another, from highly organized school sessions to soccer lessons, tutoring, dance class, or any number of pursuits. Parents sometimes overvalue the specialized training that comes from directed activity. But research clearly shows that executive function, which is cultivated by free play, prepares children for success In life by helping them solve problems independently.

A recent article in The Atlantic states that executive function...

"is a vital part of school preparedness and has long been accepted as a powerful predictor of academic performance and other positive life outcomes such as health and wealth. The focus of this study is “self-directed executive function,” or the ability to generate personal goals and determine how to achieve them on a practical level. The power of self-direction is an underrated and invaluable skill that allows students to act productively in order to achieve their own goals.

The authors studied the schedules and play habits of 70 six-year-old children, measuring how much time each of them spent in “less structured,” spontaneous activities such as imaginative play and self-selected reading and “structured” activities organized and supervised by adults, such as lessons, sports practice, community service and homework. They found that children who engage in more free play have more highly developed self-directed executive function. The opposite was also true: The more time kids spent in structured activities, the worse their sense of self-directed control."

Parents, when you pick up your child from child care, church, or school, don't always equate progress with some "take home" of art or a worksheet. In these early years, children need to play, and that means the process is more important than the product. You might ask your child's teacher, "what did the children play today?" My own masters thesis and doctoral studies looked at the connection between free play, creativeness, and question-asking behavior. I found that higher levels of free play were significantly related to both creativity and the frequency with which children ask questions. You should value play and encourage it. It promotes growth in language, social skills, and in executive function.

To read the full Atlantic article, go to