Free Play: How to Relax and Let it Happen

Free Play: How to Relax + Let it Happen

I had read many articles and books about the decline of play in society.   I had been at faculty meetings at which we discussed the difficulty of fitting play into our students’ day.  I had even watched our then six year-old struggle somewhat with the transition from a Kindergarten class at an independent school, that valued play, to a more structured and standard oriented public first grade, but it was not until I began substitute teaching in several of our local public elementary schools that I really realized just how much time for unstructured play is on the decline.


It was rare that the schedules for the classes I was working in allowed for any free play, even in the youngest grades.  If they did it was for very short periods of time, and was often the first thing sacrificed in order to make room for more academic endeavors, then one day I was asked to spend the day in a Kindergarten class.  I love this age group, and treasure watching them learn more about their world through experiments, play, and social interactions.  The class I was in had two teachers, so I was able to assist them with their regular routine and had plenty of time to observe the students and their regular routine.  We got to the end of a long and academic day and Choice Time, a forty minute block for free play, which they only got twice a week, arrived.  I watched the teacher gather the class on the rug and have each student sign up for a center.  They chose between puzzles, computers, blocks, drawings, and other centers.  There were limits to how many students could play at each center and this signing up process took over twenty minutes.  The students were now left with twenty minutes to enjoy their chosen center, at which they had to remain for the full time while sitting and using whisper voices.  You could see that this was unnatural for the students who naturally wanted to move their bodies and combine toys in order to develop new games.


Needless to say, this did not fit my definition of free play.  It was so structured, with so much time-consuming management, that the students were not provided the opportunity to do the things that help them learn and create; namely interact with many children, use their imagination, transition and use their bodies, and make mistakes.  The classroom teacher was not to be blamed for this; she had at least worked to carve out some time for free play, which is often completely missing from students’ schedules.


I left that day feeling frustrated for the children and worried about our oldest, if this was the plight of these Kindergarteners, what was happening in her first grade room?  I spent the next few days coming up with a game plan, and along her father, made some changes to allow for more free play in our children’s lives.  Some of these were principles that we already tried to follow, but really focusing on them benefited our family greatly, not only were the children more relaxed and happy, but so were the adults.


  1. Pare back the schedule: We are fortunate enough to live in a community with lots of options for structured children’s programs, from swim lessons to the library, we could have our children signed up for a different, enriching activity everyday. We have learned to say no to things, to realize that down time and free play are just as, if not more important, than filling our time with only structured activities.


  1. Limit screen time: We had always been careful about this, but we made a decision to say no screen time on school days. This might not work for every family, but as we are a blended family, and sometimes only have our oldest on weekdays and this rule freed us up for more play and family time.


Free play: How to Relax + Let it Happen


  1. Get outside: The outside world is the perfect setting for free play, whether it be bike riding, building fairy houses, or simply going for a walk, nature allows for our minds to wander and our playful spirit to emerge.


Free Play: How to Relax + Let it Happen


  1. Relax expectations: As a teacher and mother it is hard for me to not turn every opportunity into a teachable moment or a mini-lesson. I have had to take a step back, let my children lead the play, and see where their creative minds naturally take it.





Jacki Schulze is a stellar mama and learning specialist, bursting with lesson ideas for kids who love to ask “Why?” a million times. Through her love of nature, exploring, and experimenting, she is here to help change the way parents, teachers, and students learn every day. Jacki has a BA in Art History, an MA in Childhood Education, and New York State Certification in Elementary Education (1–6). When she’s not teaching, you can find her relaxing at the beach or cooking elaborate meals (while avoiding doing the dishes).



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  1. I LOVED your article Jacki! And I’m proud to say that I had the pleasure of teaching with you 🙂 I was nodding my head in passionate agreement while reading it. As a mom of 4 and former Kindergarten teacher, I too am so sad about the decline of free play time, particularly in K and 1st grade classrooms (I have one child in each now). When I ask my Kindergartener “Who’d you play with today?” he usually can’t remember. When I asked my 1st grader, what kind of building toys do you have in your classroom, she said “We don’t really have any.” Even in K, free play is called “Work Choice”. While reading, I was thinking back to free play times in our K class— if you listened closely, sometimes you’d hear the children talking about or acting out topics/themes or stories we’d read. What we had wanted them to learn, they were naturally weaving into their play. But overall, it was time to be “free”…. it restored and recharged everyone, and we valued it. That was a happy classroom!
    We too as a family have tried to resist the pressure to get involved in too many afterschool activities. So right now we’re signed up for: checking the garden, collecting leaves, playing in the sandbox, painting sunsets, one gymnastics class, and talking about our day 🙂 All the best to you & your family! Keep the articles coming! Amy

  2. Thanks for taking the time to write on this topic. You came up with a great plan to take some control. When my daughter was younger, I made a similar move by deciding to homeschool for a few years. After teaching preschool for 8+ yrs I am now mainly teaching as an entrepreneur–one of those activities families sign up for. I try to create a time of playful exploration for my drama students, with open-ended experiences and social time for children of different ages to interact with each other, inspired by those times as a young girl when we gathered in the neighborhood to create worlds with whatever materials we could scrounge up. I still think it’s time, though, to stop the pendulum and get it swinging in the other direction.

    1. Amy – So wonderful to hear from you. It was indeed a happy year, one I think of often. We were so blessed as teachers to be able to fit in as much play as we did and it benefited the students greatly.
      Robin – Absolutely, there is much to be changed in our education system and these steps were just a place for our family to begin. How nice that your family was able to choose homeschooling as an option that worked for you, it is certainly a great option for many families.

  3. This post really resonated with me. Before I was able to stay home full-time with my son, my husband and I were given a tour of the three-year-old daycare classroom our son was about to age into. The teacher proudly showed us the various “play stations” the children could use, and then explained the felt board where the children were required to place a velcro-backed photograph of themselves to reserve a station. Some stations permitted 1 child, some 2-3. So if a group of 4 friends wanted to play together, someone had to be left out. If 2 children wanted to share the computer together, too bad. We were horrified that this level of artificial structure was being imposed on children so tiny! Kids that age just need a pile of blocks, trucks, dolls, or even cardboard boxes to play happily together for hours, developing their own games and scenarios, joining and leaving small groups at will. This is one of many reasons our family is considering homeschool as our son approaches Kindergarten age.

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