The Importance of Free Play

The Importance of Free Play

Don’t Limit Free Play!

While a summer full of too many unproductive or unsupervised hours is a terrible waste for a child, free play is one of the most valuable things we can offer. Running around the park, navigating a slide, shooting hoops on the basketball court, playing jump rope all can take place without adults hovering and interjecting into every incident steals valuable opportunities for learning. 

Operation Exodus believes in free play every day. In the summer, we’re able to offer Exodus Summer kids even more chances to grow and learn through free play. From peer-to-peer learning, to negotiation skills, to social adaptability, there are layers and layers of learning that can take place during park time. That doesn’t mean anyone is unsupervised, or unsafe. It’s just that under watchful eyes of tutors and volunteers, Exodus kids are given the space to work things out themselves, and learn valuable lessons in the process.

When it comes to brain development, time in the classroom may be less important than time on the playground. Still, many children in public schools, especially in urban neighborhoods, are getting less and less time outside, despite the documented benefits of free play.

“The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,” says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. “And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed,” he says. Our friends at MindShift have been looking at the role of play in learning. Play is as much a part of childhood as school and an organic way of learning. 

It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, Pellis says. So play, he adds, is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork. But to produce this sort of brain development, children need to engage in plenty of so-called free play. No coaches, no umpires, no rule books.

“Whether it’s rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together, the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow?” Pellis says. The brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex to help it navigate these complex social interactions, he says.

Learn From the Animal Kingdom

Much of what scientists know about this process comes from research on animal species that engage in social play. This includes cats, dogs and most other mammals. But Pellis says he has also seen play in some birds, including young magpies that “grab one another and start wrestling on the ground like they were puppies or dogs.”

For a long time, researchers thought this sort of rough-and-tumble play might be a way for young animals to develop skills like hunting or fighting. But studies in the past decade or so suggest that’s not the case. Adult cats, for example, have no trouble killing a mouse even if they are deprived of play as kittens.


The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways 

Play Has  A Purpose

Researchers like Jaak Panksepp at Washington State University have come to believe play has a very different purpose. Panksepp has studied this process in rats, which love to play and even produce a distinctive sound he has labeled “rat laughter.” When the rats are young, play appears to initiate lasting changes in areas of the brain used for thinking and processing social interactions, Panskepp says.  

The changes involve switching certain genes on and off. “We found that play activates the whole neocortex,” he says. “And we found that of the 1,200 genes that we measured, about one-third of them were significantly changed simply by having a half-hour of play.”


Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp gives a playful look at the origins of free play in this NPR animation.


Of course, this doesn’t prove that play affects human brains the same way. But there are good reasons to believe it does, Pellis says.

For one thing, he says, play behavior is remarkably similar across species. Rats, monkeys and children all abide by similar rules that require participants to take turns, play fair and not inflict pain. Play also helps both people and animals become more adept socially, Pellis says.

And in people, he says, an added bonus is that the skills associated with play ultimately lead to better grades. In one study, researchers found that the best predictor of academic performance in eighth grade was a child’s social skills in third grade.

Another hint that play matters?


“Countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less.”



Of course, healthy free play does not mean that adults shouldn’t get involved if things are heated, or getting out of hand. At times, kids need adults to step in and model skills and socially acceptable behavior. However, letting them navigate free play on their own first could lead to some of the most valuable learning they will do all year.

Portions of this article were originally published on NPR Ed.

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