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Definition

Free play is a form of play that is not controlled, planned or directed by a teacher, parent, or any other outside figure. It's time when children are left to play without an outside structure imposed on them, where they can make up their own rules. Free play is often contrasted to structured play, and because of that, it's also referred to as 'unstructured play'.

Barbu, S. et al. (2011) Boys and girls on the playground: sex differences in social development are not stable across early childhood (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Sex differences in human social behaviors and abilities have long been a question of public and scientific interest. Females are usually assumed to be more socially oriented and skillful than males. However, despite an extensive literature, the very existence of sex differences remains a matter of discussion while some studies found no sex differences whereas others reported differences that were either congruent or not with gender stereotypes. Moreover, the magnitude, consistency and stability across time of the differences remain an open question, especially during childhood. As play provides an excellent window into children's social development, we investigated whether and how sex differences change in social play across early childhood. Following a cross-sectional design, 164 children aged from 2 to 6 years old, divided into four age groups, were observed during outdoor free play at nursery school. We showed that sex differences are not stable over time evidencing a developmental gap between girls and boys. Social and structured forms of play emerge systematically earlier in girls than in boys leading to subsequent sex differences in favor of girls at some ages, successively in associative play at 3-4 years, cooperative play at 4-5 years, and social interactions with peers at 5-6 years. Preschool boys also display more solitary play than preschool girls, especially when young. Nevertheless, while boys catch up and girls move on towards more complex play, sex differences in social play patterns are reversed in favor of boys at the following ages, such as in associative play at 4-5 years and cooperative play at 5-6 years. This developmental perspective contributes to resolve apparent discrepancies between single-snapshot studies. A better understanding of the dynamics of sex differences in typical social development should also provide insights into atypical social developments which exhibit sex differences in prevalence, such as autism.

Date:
January 2011
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
6
Page/s:
e16407
Synonyms:
  • Cooperative play
  • Cross-sectional
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Free play
  • Parallel play
  • Peers play
  • Social play
  • Social-emotional
  • Solitary play
Research discipline:

Barker, J. et al. (2014) Less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Executive functions in childhood predict important life outcomes. Thus, there is great interest in attempts to improve executive functions early in life. Many interventions are led by trained adults, including structured training activities in the lab, and less-structured activities implemented in schools. Such programs have yielded gains in children’s externally-driven executive functioning, where they are instructed on what goal-directed actions to carry out and when. However, it is less clear how children’s experiences relate to their development of self-directed executive functioning, where they must determine on their own what goal-directed actions to carry out and when. We hypothesized that time spent in less-structured activities would give children opportunities to practice self-directed executive functioning, and lead to benefits. To investigate this possibility, we collected information from parents about their 6-7 year-old children’s daily, annual, and typical schedules. We categorized children’s activities as “structured” or “less-structured” based on categorization schemes from prior studies on child leisure time use. We assessed children’s self-directed executive functioning using a well-established verbal fluency task, in which children generate members of a category and can decide on their own when to switch from one subcategory to another. The more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning. These relationships were robust (holding across increasingly strict classifications of structured and less-structured time) and specific (time use did not predict externally-driven executive functioning). We discuss implications, caveats, and ways in which potential interpretations can be distinguished in future work, to advance an understanding of this fundamental aspect of growing up.

Date:
January 2014
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
5
Page/s:
1-16
Synonyms:
  • Correlational
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Free play
  • Playful learning
  • Self-regulation
  • Executive function
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Bonawitz, E. et al. (2011) The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Motivated by computational analyses, we look at how teaching affects exploration and discovery. In Experiment 1, we investigated children’s exploratory play after an adult pedagogically demonstrated a function of a toy, after an interrupted pedagogical demonstration, after a naïve adult demonstrated the function, and at baseline. Preschoolers in the pedagogical condition focused almost exclusively on the target function; by contrast, children in the other conditions explored broadly. In Experiment 2, we show that children restrict their exploration both after direct instruction to themselves and after overhearing direct instruction given to another child; they do not show this constraint after observing direct instruction given to an adult or after observing a non-pedagogical intentional action. We discuss these findings as the result of rational inductive biases. In pedagogical contexts, a teacher’s failure to provide evidence for additional functions provides evidence for their absence; such contexts generalize from child to child (because children are likely to have comparable states of knowledge) but not from adult to child. Thus, pedagogy promotes efficient learning but at a cost: children are less likely to perform potentially irrelevant actions but also less likely to discover novel information.

Date:
January 2011
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
120
Page/s:
322-330
Synonyms:
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Experimental
  • Free play
  • Guided-play
  • Learning
  • Pedagogy
  • Playful learning
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Brockman, R. et al. (2010) The contribution of active play to the physical activity of primary school children (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Objective
To examine associations between active play and the physical activity of 10- to 11-year-old children.
Method
Cross-sectional study of 747, 10- tot11-year-olds, conducted between February 2008 and March 2009 in Bristol, UK. Mean minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and mean activity levels (counts per minute, CPM) were assessed by accelerometer. Frequency of active play was self-reported.
Results
Regression models indicated that frequent active play (5 or more days per week) was associated with mean daily activity levels (CPM) (girls: p = < 0.01; boys: p = <0.01), but was only associated with mean daily MVPA for girls (p = < 0.01). For leisure-time physical activity, active play was associated with children's CPM (girls: p = 0.02; boys: p = < 0.01) and MVPA (girls: p = < 0.01; boys: p = 0.03) on weekdays after school, but was only associated with weekend day CPM for boys (p =<0.01).
Conclusion
Active play is associated with children's physical activity with after-school potentially being a critical period. Strategies to promote active play may prove to be a successful means of increasing children's physical activity.

Date:
January 2010
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
51
Page/s:
144-147
Synonyms:
  • Free play
  • Outdoor play
  • Physical health
  • Physical play
  • Well-being outcomes
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Bruce, T. et al. (2008) I made a unicorn. Open-ended play with blocks and simple materials (Report)

Abstract:

Open-ended play with blocks and simple materials

Although children's play just happens spontaneously, it is complex and comes in myriad forms.
One universal type is open-ended play, also known as free-flow play, in which the children themselves determine what to do, how to do it, and what to use. Open-ended means not having a fixed answer; unrestricted; allowing for future change. In the course of such play, children have no fear of doing it wrong since there is no correct method or outcome; and observant adults are privileged with insights into children's development and thinking.

Open-ended play is intrinsic to childhood; children have an impetus to explore and create. When free to experiment with the simplest materials, they find ways to express and develop their thoughts in imaginative play.

Date:
January 2008
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
Page/s:
Synonyms:
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Free play
  • Learning
  • Object play
  • Outdoor play
  • Pretend play
  • Well-being outcomes
  • Construction play
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Canning, N. (2007) Children's empowerment in play (Journal Article)

Abstract:

This article examines the level of empowerment and autonomy children can create in their play experiences. It examines the play discourses that children build and maintain and considers the importance of play contexts in supporting children's emotional and social development. These aspects of play are often unseen or misunderstood by the adult observer. The article emphasises the importance of adult‐free play, enabling children to experience a sense of power in their play and explore their awareness of personal and social relationships. It analyses the influence the adult can have on children's play spaces, by bringing an ‘adult agenda’ to the play situation, and how this may ultimately disempower children. Dans le présent exposé, l'auteur examine comment les enfants acquièrent une indépendance et une autonomie par le jeu. Elle examine les discours qu'ils construisent et qu'ils mènent et analyse le rôle joué par les contextes ludiques dans leur développement affectif et social. Souvent, les adultes qui les observent ne remarquent pas ces aspects ou les comprennent mal. L'auteur souligne l'importance des jeux menés à l'écart des adultes, ce qui donne un sentiment de pouvoir aux enfants et les aident à prendre conscience de leurs relations personnelles et sociales. Elle analyse l'influence que peuvent avoir les adultes sur les aires de jeux et décrit comment, en imposant leurs priorités sur la situation de jeu, ils risquent de porter atteinte au sentiment d'indépendance des enfants. In dieser Arbeit wird das Maß an Empowerment und Autonomie untersucht, das Kinder in ihren Spielerfahrungen erleben und herstellen können. Die Arbeit beschäftigt sich mit den Diskursen, die Kinder beim Spielen entwickeln und fortführen, und betrachtet die Bedeutung von Spielumfeldern für die emotionale und soziale Entwicklung von Kindern. Diese Aspekte des Spielens werden vom erwachsenen Beobachter oft übersehen oder missverstanden. Betont wird die Wichtigkeit des Spielens ohne Einfluss von Erwachsenen, wodurch Kinder ein Gefühl von Selbstbestimmung erleben und ihre Wahrnehmung persönlicher und sozialer Beziehungen ergründen können. In dieser Arbeit wird zudem analysiert, welchen Einfluss Erwachsene unter Umständen auf Spielumgebungen von Kindern haben, indem sie ‘Erwachsenen‐Interessen’ in die Spielsituation einbringen, und wie dies Kinder letztendlich entmächtigen kann. El presente trabajo de investigación examina el nivel de capacitación y autonomía que los niños crean en sus experiencias de juego. En él se examinan los discursos del juego que los niños crean y mantienen, y se analiza la importancia de los contextos de juego en el sostenimiento del desarrollo afectivo y social del niño. A menudo, estos aspectos del juego pasan desapercibidos o son malinterpretados por el observador adulto. El presente trabajo hace hincapié en la importancia del juego sin la presencia de adultos, que permita a los niños experimentar una sensación de dominio durante el juego y explorar su consciencia de las relaciones personales y sociales. El documento analiza asimismo la influencia que ejerce el adulto sobre los espacios de juego infantiles, al incorporar sus ‘planes adultos’ a una situación de juego, y cómo, en última instancia, esto puede ir en detrimento de la capacitación a los niños.

Author/s:
Date:
January 2007
Volume:
15
Page/s:
227-236
Synonyms:
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Free play
  • Literature review
  • Peers play
  • Social-emotional
  • Teacher/caregiver play
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Canning, N. (2013) "Where's the Bear? Over There!"--Creative Thinking and Imagination in Den Making (Journal Article)

Abstract:

This small scale research project examines opportunities for creative thinking and imagination through den making in a rural private day nursery with its own woodland area on the borders of England and Wales in the UK. The research is underpinned by sociocultural theory and is an ethnographic study of non-participant observations of children aged between three and four years old and early years practitioners involved in supporting their play. The focus is on children's creative play in peer social groups and examines the way in which children explore their environment and utilise their play space and resources to sustain imagination and creativity. The research considers how the environment and den-making context provides opportunities for possibility thinking [Craft, A. (2001). "Little c creativity." In A. Craft, B. Jeffrey, & M. Liebling (Eds.), "Creativity in education" (pp. 45-61). London: Continuum], where children are encouraged to explore "what if?" questions. The research explores the way in which an outdoor environment can support flexible opportunities and resources where children are able to engage in imaginative and creative play, develop their communication skills and build relationships with other children and adults. The research considers children's fascination with the story "bears in the wood" and how early years practitioners facilitated their creative thinking and imagination.

Author/s:
Date:
January 2013
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
183
Page/s:
1042-1053
Synonyms:
  • Creativity
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Free play
  • Outdoor play
  • Peers play
  • Playful learning
  • Pretend play
  • Qualitative methodology
  • Construction play
Relevant age group/s:

Fallon, J. et al. (2013) Free play time of children with learning disabilities in a noninclusive preschool setting: An analysis of play and nonplay behaviours. (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Some children with disabilities go to special preschools where adults help them play. The adults who work in preschools sometimes ask occupational therapists for advice to help children play more. Occupational therapists need to know how children play when not helped by adults. This study videoed children playing both with lots of toys and without toys to see how they chose to play. Within the Republic of Ireland, young children with learning disabilities may attend special preschools where they do not share any part of their day with typically developing children. Within these settings, preschool staff support children's play. Clinicians such as occupational therapists may be called upon to assist in progressing their play. To provide appropriate recommendations, occupational therapists must have a clear understanding of what play a child with learning disabilities engages in when not supported by adults. Occupational therapy literature described play as the most common occupation of children with a focus on process‐driven activity. This may be at odds with a model of early intervention, where play is often product‐driven, with the end goal in mind. The aim of this research was to establish what free play, if any, children with learning disabilities engage in when not supported by adults in an Irish preschool setting. Secondly, this study sought to describe what behaviours these children engage in when they were not playing. Finally, this study sought to establish inter‐rater reliability of the Revised Know Preschool Play Scale with this small sample. Systematic observation was used to explore the play and nonplay behaviours of the children involved. A convenience sample was used to identify five children to participate in the study. Results indicated that children engaged in free play within the sensory motor stage of development, as assessed using the Revised Knox Preschool Play Scale. They also spent significant time in nonplay behaviours. The behaviour patterns of the children and time spent in different activities were explored. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2013 APA, all rights reserved). (journal abstract)

Author/s:
Date:
January 2013
Volume:
41
Page/s:
212-219
Synonyms:
  • Atypical development
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Engagement
  • Exploratory play
  • Free play
  • Object play
  • Playfulness
  • Pretend play
  • Social-emotional
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Farver, J. et al. (2000) Within Cultural Differences: Examining Individual Differences in Korean American and European American Preschoolers' Social Pretend Play (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Individual differences in 30Korean American and 30 European American preschoolers’ play behavior were examined to understand how intracultural variations in children’s skills and behavioral characteristics may be associated with social pretend play in early childhood. Observers recorded the children’s social behaviors and play complexity. Teachers rated children’s social behavior, parents completed a child rearing question- naire, and children were given the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelli- gence–Revised and the Multidimensional Stimulus Fluency Measure. The findings showed that there were similar patterns predictive of pretend play for both groups.Over- all, children’s interactive style, positive social interaction with peers, and creativity scores significantly predicted pretend play. The results suggest that individual factors related to pretend play transcend culture.

Date:
January 2000
Publisher or Journal:
Volume:
31
Page/s:
583-602
Synonyms:
  • Correlational
  • Creativity
  • Developmental outcomes
  • Free play
  • Language
  • Pretend play
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline:

Feda, D. et al. (2012) Effect of increasing the choice of active options on children's physically active play (Journal Article)

Abstract:

bjectives: To determine whether increasing the choice of physical activity options increases the duration and intensity of children's physically active play. Design: This cross-sectional laboratory study included gender (male and female) and choice group [single toy (no choice), three toys (low choice), five toys (high choice)] as between participant factors. Methods: Boys and girls (. n=. 36, 8-12. y) were stratified, randomly assigned to a choice group that always provided access to each participant's most liked active toy(s), and allowed 60. min of free time. The same sedentary alternatives were freely available to all participants. Physical activity outcomes were measured by accelerometry, heart rate, and direct observation. Results: The number of active toys the children played with increased (. p<. 0.001) across each choice group. Minutes spent in MPA were greater in the low choice (. p<. 0.05) and high choice (. p<. 0.02) groups than the no choice group. Active playtime was greater (. p<. 0.01) in the low choice (79%) and high choice (95%) groups compared to the no choice group. Girls in the low and high choice groups had greater (. p<. 0.05) percent heart rate reserve when compared to girls in the no choice group. There was no difference in the boys' percent heart rate reserve between the no choice, low choice and high choice groups. Conclusions: Increasing the choice of active toys increases both the duration and intensity of physically active play, especially in girls. © 2011 Sports Medicine Australia.

Date:
January 2012
Volume:
15
Page/s:
334-340
Synonyms:
  • Experimental
  • Free play
  • Object play
  • Physical health
  • Physical play
  • Well-being outcomes
Relevant age group/s:
Research discipline: