Set them up and let them go

Even though cold weather is keeping the kids inside more than usual, activities don’t need to be limited. There’s a lot of creative, fun play to be had whether it’s building forts, making movies, putting on plays or doing arts and crafts. It may take a little more organization—and tolerance of messes—but the results of free play not only keep your kids occupied but also enhance their brains.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids get 60 minutes of unstructured, free play every day because it’s good for building strong minds. Studies on elementary kids show imaginary play is a large part of brain development. Kids who are allowed ample opportunities for unstructured play learn self-reliance, how to negotiate relationships outside of a structured setting, and how to think critically and problem solve. 

As a parent, your job is simply setting them up with the materials they need, giving some practical guidelines and possibly making a suggestion to get them rolling. Remember, free play is open-ended and child led. Here are some ideas to help them get started:

Fill a bin with dress up clothes and props

Let their imaginations run wild with dress up clothes for all kinds of storytelling. Let your kids create an episode of a favorite show or practice writing a script and acting out their own stories. Assist by being the videographer. Throw in lots of hats, scarves, canes, coats, shoes, ties, gaudy jewelry and cheap lipstick. Keep the bin on hand and if possible within sight to spark interest. Coordinate turn-taking and set limits on actions, like aggression, if needed.

Create a makeshift art studio

If you can, dedicate a table or desk area where your kids can do arts and crafts—or simply be willing to clear your kitchen table when inspiration strikes. Gather art supplies from glue and colored paper to all types of paints, crayons, colored pencils, markers, chalk, poster paper and brushes. Don’t forget ribbons, sequins, yarn, buttons and cloth. Feel free to guide their artists’ minds by offering up ideas of different craft projects yet stay open to them coloring the sky green or the trees pink.    

Foster career day fun

Kids love to mimic adult life. After all, it’s how they learn about how the world works. Encourage creative play with props for a restaurant, veterinary clinic, doctor’s office, store, carpentry shop or classroom. Stuffed animals can be gathered for check ups with a toy stethoscope, real bandages, and popsicle sticks and tape for splinting. Customers can order food and pay at the register while cooks work in the kitchen. 

Making time for free play

While structured interaction teaches certain skills, free play helps develop well-rounded skills involving not just mental reasoning, but social and emotional abilities as well. Playing is a child’s job, so do your best to make sure there’s time for it every day.

Kids who lack the chances for unstructured, imaginative play, are less happy and well adjusted when they become adults. Free play enhances how kids interact socially, solve problems and cope with stress. There’s so much you can do in your daily life to feed your young child’s brain. You don’t have to pack their schedules or sign up for expensive classes. Consider limiting outside activities so they have plenty of time at home to let their imaginations reign.

One trick to fitting free play into a busy schedule, especially with little ones who need a lot of supervision, is creating opportunities to play where you are. If you are making dinner set up a mini kitchen in the corner with pots, pans and plastic food so your child can cook, too. If you are talking on the phone give her a toy cell phone so she can imitate. When your phone rings she can answer hers, too. 

Set your kids up for free play. The benefits are well worth the occasional moments of chaos and the mess of cleaning up.