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The Open School of Creative Arts

The Open School of Creative Arts
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Five Ways to Encourage Free Play

If you struggle to let your kids just be bored, and play free, then I hope this post will help you! As part of the Petits Filous Play Free Campaign and their Let Them Be Bored Challenge,  I want to highlight the importance of free play for young children by sharing with you some tips to help you embrace the ideas behind letting children be bored, hands off parenting, and just letting them play free!

The Let Them Be Bored Challenge is simple. 

"Instead of jumping in and directing your child’s play (even when they 
mutter the dreaded “I’m bored”) simply step back and let them work through their boredom and Play Free, making sure they don’t reach for the tables, smart-phones or TV as a boredom filler!"

For some families this is not unusual, and for others it really is a challenge. Either way, you are bound to see the benefits of free play for your children, whatever their age. So, what are the benefits of free play??


I’m working with Petits Filous and BritMums promoting the #PetitsFilousPlayFree campaign 
about the importance of free play.

Check out this awesome video, as seen on Petits Filous' Facebook Page,  highlighting the benefits of free play!

Be sure to check out my first post for this campaign too, Five Things to Do in the Woods, for some fun ideas for outdoor free play. And check out the hashtag #PetitsFilousPlayFree on twitter for more awesome posts and chats about this challenge!

The Benefits of Being Bored and Free Play

Anita Cleare, founder of the Positive Parenting Project, says, "Boredom is good for children because it stimulates curiosity and fires the imagination. At its best, boredom is a creative state that leads to new ideas and new play. And we know that good quality play drives children’s development and builds intelligence."

Here are just a couple of the benefits of free play...

- Free play allows children to relax and unwind after a day at nursery or school; pretend play in particular can give opportunities for children to process events, such as a challenging social situation, or learning a new skill.

- Playing with open ended toys (toys that have multiple uses, rather than a single prescriptive use), or even "un-toys" (things that children love to play with, but that are not toys, like a cardboard box, clothes pegs, keys, etc) can lead to wonderful creativity and imagination.

- Imaginative and creative play often promotes language development; using descriptive language to talk about what they are doing and making, learning new words, and developing expression and intonation as they talk to themselves or each other.


I was lucky enough to have a chat with Anita about how my children play, how I could further encourage free play, and how it benefits them. I described how Poppy, by 5 year old daughter, loves to play with her dolls; they talk to each other and she acts out little scenarios with them... not uncommon in young children at all! I was curious to what she was getting out of this type of play, apart from all the fun!

Anita explained that at 5 years old Poppy would be really developing her cognitive and social skills, and that by playing with dolls, dressing up, or playing make believe, she was starting to imagine what it is like to be someone else, and therefore hugely aiding in the development of empathy and compassion!

Anita and I also talked about the bigger physical play that Poppy and her older brother Jake often engage with. This usually involves dressing up, chasing each other, hiding, pretending to be animals and "flying", or pretending to spies and quietly creeping round the house, hiding from the grown ups, and pretending that we can't see them at all! Anita discussed how they would both be expanding their spacial awareness, mental rotational skills and logical framework. Poppy would also be learning a lot from Jake! 

 It was great to be reminded of all these things! I am not a particularly hands on parent when it comes to their play, now they are older. I do let them just get on with what they want to play with, especially after school, when they are tired and have had plenty of structure in their day, so I didn't struggle with the boredom challenge, however it is so easy to forget all the wonderful things that they are learning and developing while they are playing, and that they are not JUST having fun!

Five Ways to Encourage Free Play

1. Ditch the screen time.
Yes, I know you are probably bored of hearing it, but it is true! Screens and devices definitely have their place in education now; there are important skills to be learned for future study and work opportunities, however as far as early childhood development goes they are unnecessary; there is nothing a child can't learn playing with toys and nature, than they can on an Ipad. (I do understand that they are convenient at times, and am not berating any parent for using them with their children!)

HOWEVER, if you turn off the TV and put the Ipads and mobiles away, children will have to find other things to do, and that is where the magic can happen. Whether it's simply scribbling and drawing, or playing outside for hours, playing hide and seek with their siblings, or building lego or wooden blocks they will be learning so much, and having a lot of fun, once they get going!

2. Leave them to it! I know some parents find this really tricky, especially with a single child, however you will both reap the rewards! Most of the time, there is house work or cooking to do, other children or animals to see to, phone calls to make, or work to do. So try and take twenty minutes, or whatever you are comfortable with, to go and be busy with whatever you need to, and let your child know that they are in a safe space to play however they want. 

This obviously varies with the age of your child, if they are very young you will not want to leave them entirely unsupervised, and the toys or things they have need to be safe and appropriate! 

3. Provide Loose Parts. Loose parts are fantastic "toys" that allow your children to play freely and creatively. You can find a list of loose parts ideas here. They are things like pebbles, sticks, shells, beads, wooden shapes or letters, play silks, bricks. For babies or toddlers that need bigger (non eat-able) things, you can provide cardboard boxes, cardboard tubes, wooden spoons, mixing bowls, cups, wooden disks, balls... For older children, you can offer tinker trays; a box or tray full of screws, bolts, washers, old casette players and tapes, keyrings, pegs... all sorts. Playdough is also a great addition to any loose parts, at any age!

All ages will have so much fun building, making, creating, often without end, but that is great! These loose parts provide so much opportunity for fine and gross motor development, spacial awareness, pre-maths and engineering, creativity and artistic skills... oh the list is endless!

4. Offer Imaginary Toys. Toys like dolls, puppets, teddies, playmobil, lego sets, animal figures, dolls houses, train tracks, etc...

Probably all quite self explanatory, but many children do not have access to these types of toys any more! They provide hours of free, open-ended play. My children have created entire worlds out of book platforms and wooden blocks,  filled with lego creations, playmobil people and animal figures!

Some of these toys can seem really pricey, but there are plenty of selling sites where you can buy second hand, and charity shops nearly always have dolls, teddies, cars and animals for sale at crazy cheap prices! About 70% of my kids' toys have come from charity shops, and I am proud of it! :P

5. Give Creative Materials. Messy play is many parent's worst nightmare, and I totally sympathise; I am an artist myself, but I am not a fan of the clean up after a kids' painting session!! However, there are loads of creative materials that your children can access all the time, without the worry of mess!!

So, some messy options are paint, pastels, oil pastels, playdough, gloop or Oobleck (cornflour and water), glue, eco friendly glitter, and clay. The fun speaks for itself, I think :)

The Non-Messy options include - paper, chalk, coloured paper, card, crayons, pencils, pens, highlighters, watercolour pencils, stickers, stencils, scissors, glue stick, tape, washi tape, books (all sorts of picture books, non-fiction, art books, etc for inspiration), an old camera is also a great creative tool... I'm sure there are lots of other things you can add to this list!!

I remember spending hours as a child drawing and writing, and I loved it (still do!).

Creative play for children can help with language development, fine motor skills, self expression and self awareness, empathy and social skills, pre-writing and pre-maths skills (mark-making, colours, shapes, pen control...), and of course developing imagination!

I really am passionate about the benefits of free play for both children and parents, and I really recommend trying the Petits Filous Let Them Be Bored Challenge! And I would love to hear how you get on. What do you find most challenging about leaving kids to get on with play? What do you enjoy most? What do your children like to play with the most? What do you see them getting out of it?

Whatever your children love to get up to while they play free, they will play happier if they are full up! (hunger never aids play well!!) So a healthy snack or lunch is essential! Petits Filous are a delicious easy snack, that can be given at home with the Little Pots, or out and about in Pouches (which can be kept out of the fridge for up to 5 hours and you don't need to worry about a spoon!), they are fortified with Vitamin D, giving 50% of the daily recommended allowance, helping those growing bones and aiding free play! 

Plus, Poppy thinks you can even play with the pot and spoon, turning it into a musical instrument! Well, why not?! :D 

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