All children should have access to free play every day—research and our experience confirm this. Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple. It’s clear that integrating free play into family life poses its share of challenges. In light of hectic schedules, fickle weather, and household chores, it can be hard to find time to let our kids enjoy outside free play. The obstacles are very real and are shared by most families. At The Lion and The Mouse, we never view a child’s lack of free play as a personal failure on the part of the parent or the child, but as a challenge to be faced together. That’s why we’ve made a list of the five most common obstacles facing families in our community, as well as some tips for making free play more doable on a daily basis.
Obstacle No. 1: Time (“There’s never enough!”)
We say it all the time, but we can’t say it enough: free play takes free time, and it’s not fun when you feel rushed. Schedule time in your day and your week for your kids to play freely. Steal time here and there, like while waiting for the bus or walking to school. It’s so worth it!
Obstacle No. 2: The weather (“It’s not nice out today!”)
In the pedagogy of forest school, an outdoor activity that we regularly organize, we teach the following sentence: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” You can always dress for the weather. Parents and guardians should dress appropriately too! If you’re cold or uncomfortable while your child is playing freely, chances are you won’t enjoy the free play time for very long. That said, free play isn’t an extreme sport. You have to recognize your limits and those of your child. A wet sock can really put a damper on things. For instance, if it’s way too cold outside—in general, it’s a good idea to stay indoors if the temperature drops to -27°C (-16°F) or below with the wind chill factor—your child can play freely inside instead. Everyday objects are often the best way to spark a child’s creativity!
Obstacle No. 3: Mess (“Endless cleaning!”)
Free play can be synonymous with making a mess, and you might not always be in the mood or have the time to clean up afterwards. However, kids should be allowed to get dirty now and then! What should you do? First, we must accept that making a mess is part of children’s play and that the solution is possibly to organize our lives accordingly. For instance, in our playgroups for parents and toddlers, we all help tidy up when we finish playing. Some of our families have also moved up bath time so that their kids can hop in the tub as soon as they get home from a free play session, even before having something to eat. It’s also a great opportunity to give your children some responsibility.
Obstacle No. 4: Access to natural spaces (“The woods are too far away!”)
Wooded areas and forests can make wonderful free-play playgrounds, but we don’t always have the means or the time to go to a nature park or the countryside to play. But a green alley, the little park on the corner, and lots of other urban spaces can work just as well for free play! You just need to think of nature as a spectrum to see the value of urban nature.
Obstacle No. 5: Lack of play materials (“Where are the toys?”)
Did you know that the best materials for free play are versatile, everyday objects? Shovels, kitchen items, cardboard tubes, cardboard boxes, fabric scraps, empty yogurt containers, egg cartons, bicycle tires, hunks of wood—all of these can inspire endless games without costing you a dime!
Making time for free play every day poses multiple challenges, but the benefits to us and our children far outweigh the obstacles. The first step is identifying the obstacles to free play and determining whether they are within or beyond our control. It’s not always easy to find a solution, but it’s always worth it!