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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