Pediatricians & Child Therapists: Prescribe Free Play!
Parents: Permit and Encourage Free Play!

Children need free play for immediate happiness & long-term Mental Health.

Researchers and clinicians concerned with children’s development are rediscovering something that was once understood intuitively: Kids need free play and other opportunities for self-chosen, self-directed activities both for immediate happiness and long-term wellbeing.

FREE PLAY is play that is not organized or even supervised by an adult. If you think back to your own childhood and teen years, you may well remember the transforming value of plain old play. It is a source of immediate happiness, and beyond that it is the primary means by which kids develop the confidence, courage, and competence they need to meet future challenges. Free play with other kids is especially valuable, as it is the primary means by which they acquire social skills, make friends, and develop the sense of connectedness with others that is so essential to mental health.

The value of free play is not obvious to many parents today, who have often been led to believe that adult-run activities are more enriching for kids than time spent figuring out what to do, hammering out rules, arguing if the ball was in or out – and even figuring out how to keep Ava’s little brother involved so she doesn’t have to take him home. All those things may seem frustrating or difficult for kids to handle, so adults these days are tempted to take over. But it is precisely in handling such problems (which, yes, can be difficult) that kids start becoming resourceful, confident, creative, and caring.

In a world where rates of anxiety and depression among children and teens have skyrocketed, it’s time to bring free play—Mother Nature’s first line of defense against anxiety and depression—back into children’s lives. In regular office visits, pediatricians might talk with parents about the importance of play and engage in dialogue with them about safe-enough ways to do it. As an aid to this, pediatricians might give patients a copy of this down-loadable, easily printable flyer that describes why play is valuable. Therapists treating kids who are already suffering from anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts might talk with their young clients about activities that would bring them pleasure, and then prescribe that activity. It can work better than a drug. Here is a report of one child therapist’s successful use of this approach.

But how can parents take their eyes off their kids?

For kids to play on their own – and explore, and try new things – parents have to do something that our culture has been discouraging for at least a generation: They have to trust their kids with some unstructured, unsupervised time on their own.

They have to take their eyes off their kids.

That means gradually allowing kids to start doing new things on their own – anything from making breakfast, to walking the dog, to practicing free throws at the park. And also allowing kids to play with friends, outside or even in another room, without a potentially intervening adult watching or listening in (not even electronically).

INDEPENDENCE ACTIVITIES (or what some clinicians are starting to call IAs) are activities aimed specifically at building a sense of independence in kids. They are confidence builders not just for kids, but also for parents. As the kids begin to realize their own capabilities, parents see that growth and begin to feel better about their kids and about themselves as parents. They begin to relax. Anxiety is the belief you can’t handle things. Being told by your parents, “I believe you can!” is the wind beneath kids’ wings. When parents take a step back, proving they trust their kids, kids get a jolt of trust in themselves. 

In a culture of fear, letting go even a little can require a leap of faith. As professionals, we can encourage that leap, knowing that the opposite – constant supervision, assistance, intervention – is hurting kids’ sense of mastery.

Research Evidence on Efficacy of Free Play & Independence Activities (IAs)

Much scientific evidence supports our recommendation that you guide the parents of your patients to include more opportunities for free-play and independence activities (IAs) in their children’s schedules.

What can you do?

prescription for play

As forward-thinking medical professionals, you have the power to reshape the landscape of mental health treatment for our young patients by simply recommending to parents that they  … 

  1. Reduce children’s activities directed by adults
  2. Increase activities children choose and carry out without adult supervision (IAs).
  3. Increase face-to-face peer time (without adult involvement or supervision)
  4. Increase developmentally appropriate risky aspects to the activities 
  5. Make more opportunities for free, unstructured, unsupervised play
  6. Share this flyer with parents – how kids benefit from free play and Independence Activities

An example of Independence Therapy (from source): A 9-year-old was afraid to sleep in her own bed at night. Her parents took her to a therapist who recommended she do some Independence Activities of her own choosing. Over the course of five weeks she did about 15 of these. The most growth-promoting of these occurred when she took a local bus by herself and her phone malfunctioned. Now what? She had to ask the woman next to her for help. Together, they figured out her stop. The thrill of problem-solving left the girl beaming. After the five weeks of newfound independence, she started sleeping in her own bed for the first time in her life.

What this example shows is that specific fears don’t need to be overcome by focusing on that fear. Any courage-building activity can help a child overcome fears unrelated to that activity.

Stay Connected 

If you’d like to know more or be kept informed of play related information and benefits  …

If you are interested in participating with us in planning and spreading this important message to other childcare professionals tell us about your interest.