Free Play Doesn’t Have to Mean Unsupervised

Playborhood is all about providing opportunities that allow for children to get out and play freely, in minimally supervised environments. While most parents find this to be a worthy goal, many of us have a hard time conceiving of actually how to make this happen in this day and age. We don’t feel comfortable just letting our kids go outside, totally out of the sight of adults.

Some of this confusion comes from the understanding or possibly misunderstanding of what is meant by “free play.” Free play, by most definitions, is open-ended play. It’s the act of putting children in a location and/or situation where they can do what they want within certain limits or boundaries. This could mean their neighborhood, a park, a back yard or even a classroom.Many of the nursery and preschools in Northern California, where I live, are free play-based. They have schedules – certain times when children snack or read, but they also have a significant portion of free play with enough supplies for the kids to broaden their horizons and develop skills as well as having fun.

Free play also tends to differ by age. For toddlers, free play means being in the same space with other kids and doing with it as they choose. For older kids, it could mean pick-up roller hockey in the street or riding bikes around their neighborhood. It doesn’t have to be structured or unstructured – just allowing for creativity and flexibility. And it does not necessarily mean unsupervised. Parents or other adults could be on hand in the neighborhood, in the park, etc. to watch the children.

Take the Kids Outdoor Club, for example. It’s a way for kids who live in a fairly urban area to have regular opportunities in a minimally structured or free play outdoor environment. I know if I still lived in San Francisco, I would sign up for that in a heartbeat because the need for green space, fresh air and exercise is so important.

For some purists, free play means being out in nature and having to use just imagination and what nature provides for play. Sometimes this means with supervision; sometimes not. I grew up in a neighborhood with a creek and a lot of trees and some small bridges, so we made those spaces our play areas and came up with all kinds of games when left to ourselves to just go over to the neighbor kids’ houses and play. We studied fossils found in the creek, we pretended to be billy goats crossing the bridge or trolls below. We built forts out of sticks and made up characters to play. We were gone for hours but we knew what time to be home for dinner and that worked just fine.

Nature doesn’t necessarily have to be the playground for free play to occur, but it is often selected for obvious reasons. What I would like to see personally are more forms of semi-organized free play. That may sound like an oxymoron, but I mean scenarios in neighborhoods like mine where it’s understood that kids meet at certain times of the week in certain locations in the neighborhood for pick-up games in the street, playing at the park or at someone’s house. This way the kids and their parents all know that’s when everyone gets together and they can keep the time available whenever possible, keeping it low key for everyone.

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5 Responses to Free Play Doesn’t Have to Mean Unsupervised

  1. Simon Firth says:

    Thanks for this post, Sarah. I think it’s important to be clear that ‘free play’ can mean different things at different ages and will differ again depending on a child’s particular personality and needs, as well as a family’s circumstances.

    It’s also good to be reminded of the value of ‘minimal supervision.’ I try to meet up at least once a week with a bunch of families in a park in our neighborhood to just hang out. We leave the kids pretty much to themselves. They decide what they are going to do, but we’re there if they need us. It’s a good way for the kids to learn to play with children of all ages and it’s great for the parents — we get to catch up and be social, an activity worth it’s weight in gold!

  2. penny_wilson says:

    In a recent tour of America with the Alliance for Childhood, we introduced folks to the concept that Winnicott has of a child moving from ‘absolute dependence’ on the parent, to being fully ‘independent’ by way of a stage he describes as ‘relative dependence’ At this stage, he says, the child can ‘play alone in the presence of’ the parent. It is useful to be reminded that sometimes the ‘Good Enough’* parent is doing the best job that they can possibly do, by standing back and supporting and validating the time and space for children to play alone together, without ‘adulteration’.**

    In the UK and elsewhere, Playworkers are concerned with providing this role for children within communities. It is indeed an oxymoron and a paradox. However many children do not have the idyllic experience, so beautifully described in Sarah’s piece, and there is a need to for adults to create compensatory environments so that a wide variety of play can be available for children who live in tower blocks etc, as very many of them do. It is great that we are working on designs for living spaces where all areas are ‘playable space’***for children and communities. But the reality at the moment is a different matter.

    In environments that are designed to be spaces of exclusion for children and their play, these play spaces and the adults who use Playwork theory and practice to support them, are the nearest those children will get to this idyll.

    * Winnicott
    ** Gordon Sturrock.
    *** Tim Gill

  3. Tracey Taylor says:


    I couldn’t agree more with your “oxymoronic” desire!

    I listen to my son saying he won’t go out to skateboard until he sees someone else out on the street doing it.

    It drives me crazy. Part of me wants to not be involved and let the kids sort out their play on their own — I want them to be in charge without meddling parents — but then I feel the need to talk to all the other neighborhood parents and tell them to throw their kids out on the street at a pre-agreed hour so my son (and others) will follow suit!

  4. Simon Firth says:

    Tracey — It’s not just planning that makes ‘freeplay’ hard for parents to encourage. There’s also the issue of the kinds of play that happen when kids make up their own games.

    Here’s an example for just yesterday at the park: It was our weekly neighborhood playgroup and we had about seven parents and sixteen or so children there, aged between one and seven. The children were all playing very well together in small groups until one particular six year old turned up. He’s a child who’s very interested in gun play and exploring power relations between himself and others. Very quickly he inspired a couple of girls to join him in a play-assault of some other children, mostly younger, which quickly escalated to hitting those younger kids with sticks.

    That put the game across the line for me and I intervened. No big deal (although I’m not in love with the boy’s current passions!), but I’m glad I was there. I guess I could have let them resolve the issue themselves, which would have meant both physical injury and an experience of being gratuitously picked on for the younger kids and no check on the older ones that the game they’d invented was not okay.

    This goes back to Penny’s point that there’s a gradation in dependence in child development. With children at age six and seven, certainly, it’s my experience that they’re ready for what you could call ‘relative independence,’ but they benefit in having an adult close by to help resolve play issues promptly. To not be there would allow for more than feelings to be hurt and for the perpetrators to have their bullying play practices (which were perfectly enjoyable for them!) unchallenged.

    I think this kind of nuance in promoting ‘freeplay’ is needed for parents to both understand how it can ideally work and to alleviate fears that it can reinforce some of the ‘bad play’ experiences that younger, less strong children often suffer when adults are out of sight.

  5. Sarah Granger says:

    These are all good points, and it’s especially important to help find solutions for the kids who live in areas where there isn’t a lot of outdoor space available for them to play.