What is Free Play?
Free Play “refers to planned and impromptu times when baby, pretoddler, and toddler plays with his or toys at a place center.” A play center is a “small, safe area containing a basket or bin of age-appropriate toys that he can go to and choose what he wants to play with (pre-toddlerwise p.155) You can have play centers in different areas of your house- the kitchen, living room, play room, and even your bathroom. That way if you ever need to be in a room, your child can easily have free play in that room with you. Free Play is called free play because the child choose the toys that he/she wants to play with rather than the parent choosing (like during structured play time). You need to supervise their play time, you just don’t want to interfere with their play choices. This is also a time to allow them to play on their own. During this time they learn to play and use problem-solving techniques, but only if you don’t interfere in their play. If you notice your child having trouble with a particular toy, let them try to figure it out on their own for a while before you jump in to help.
How Many toys should I allow my child to have during Free Play?
According to the -wise series, you should have designated play centers that contain toys for your child to choose from. I would only allow 4-5 toys in this learning center at a time. For instance, for a 15 month old boy, I might include- a few books, a few cars, an interactive lights/ sounds toy, and some toy blocks. A 10 month old might have, a teething toy, some books, light/ sounds toy, and some stuffed animals. An older toddler girl might have, a purse with some items inside, books, one light/sounds toy, and some play food. I have found that if you have too many toys, it overwhelms the child and they have more difficult sustaining their attention during play time. I don’t have a play center in my play room. When my son has free play in his play room, I just take down a few toys for him to play with at a time. I certainly do not take out all of his toys. I use to have all his toys on the ground at his disposable, but this was a terrible decision. His attention span for each toy was very short and he would easily grow bored and need assistance during play. Once I limited the amount of toys he could play with during free play, he played with each toy longer and he would play happily by himself for longer stretches without needing my assistance.
How long should free play last?
Good question. I think this depends on the child. You want to keep free play from being too long. If it is too long, you will notice your child starting to become more clingy to you, start developing some behavioral issues, or plays with his toys improperly. The key is keeping the length just long enough before they get to that point. I have found that between 15-30 minutes is a good amount of time for free play for older babies (5-12 months), 30 minutes of free play to be a good time amount for pre-toddlers (12-18 months), and for older toddlers (<18 months), 30 minutes- 1 hours is a good time amount. Just watch your child for signs that free play should end.
When should I do free play? How often should I do free play?
Again this all depends on your child. I think a general rule of thumb is to allow them to have free play when they are well rested and well feed, which will prevent behavioral problems during free play. For my son I find the best time to do free play is right after he wakes up in the morning, after his afternoon nap, and after he has been outside for a walk or outside to play. You can do free play as often as your schedule needs. I have two free play times schedule into my son’s current schedule. I like to have a morning free play and an afternoon free play. Here is his schedule at 15 months old:
7:00-8:00 Wake Up & Play in Crib
8:00- 8:30 Free Play
8:30-9:00 DVD/ TV
9:45- 10:45 Independent Play (Roomtime)
10:45-11:30 Bath & Get Dressed for Day
11:30-12:15 Unstructured Time (run errands/ play outside/ or additional free play if bad weather)
12:45-1:00 Potty & Quite Time before Nap
3:45-4:15 Structured Play & Snack
4:15- 4:45 Blanket Time
4:45-5:15 Walk Outside
5:15-5:45 Free Play
5:45-6/6:30 Independent Play (Roomtime)
6:30/7 Family Play Time
7:45 Bedtime Routine
What if my child is clingy and will not play on his own during Free Play?
Just redirect your child when he/she comes up to you and demands your attention. I would take him back to his play center or area he is suppose to be playing and say, ” (name), no, it is play time, stay here.” or “(name), no, mommy is busy, play with your (name a specific toy).” You might even show him how to start playing with a specific toy and then leave the room. I would just keep redirecting him and redirecting him back to his play area and toys. When free play is over, even if you have redirected him like 20 times, make sure to praise him for playing on his own in his playroom. Remember that children go through stages of separation anxiety, and if they are having trouble playing on their own, it may only be a short lived phase. Try not be a helicopter parents, allow your child to figure things out for their own- this will assist his independence and ability to play on his own.
Benefits of Free Play for the Parent
Free play is a great time where I can get things done around the house. My son’s play room is right next to the kitchen so I am usually preparing a meal or cleaning up the kitchen. I also use my kitchen to do my sewing and check email and blog on my computer. I can keep an eye on my son and he is also not too far away that he feels isolated. My son often walks between the kitchen and the playroom. That is okay with. If he tends to linger to long, I will redirect him back to his play room and toys like I mentioned above. If I have to be in another room of the house, I usually take a small tub of toys with me that contain a few toys. I use this portable tub when I am putting clothes away in my room, cleaning another room, or just getting ready in that bathroom. Cooper will happily play with his tub of toys and I can get things done without a toddler clinging to my leg. Just make sure the tub of toys are interesting to your child and rotate them often to keep them from getting boring.