Free Play- adventures in parenting

32 years ago I became a know-it-all mom.

I delivered annoying Ted Talks to anyone who would listen. I went on and on about how to

  • stick to a daily nap-time
  • pick out educational toys
  • maintain a safe and sanitary environment
  • serve nutritious meals three times a day.

Fast forward four kids later.  I couldn’t remember to wipe the drool off my face in the morning much less how to mold a child’s future.

My kids filled all the thinkable space around me

  • tearing through the house
  • making lots of noise
  • drawing blood with toy rakes and shovels
  • turning building blocks into wooden bombs
  • taking dolls prisoner

and scribbling treasure map after treasure map in hopes of finding buried gold. (I know, their approach to treasure mapping can mess with your head. I advise that you just keep reading and try not to draw any maps of your own.)

My husband and I did the after-school enhancement thing. We shuttled the kids to swimming lessons, ballet, gymnastic classes, skating, soccer and football  practice. We did as much as one car and a tight budget could accomplish. Just an ordinary family desperately trying to fit into civilized society.

Once we got home my kids ran out the back yard and grabbed

  • tree branches,
  • worn out clothes,
  • old buckets
  • pots and pans

so that they could get back to the business of play, of creating crazy and dangerous  worlds over and over again.

What part of “lets be normal like everyone else” did they not understand?

Although I secretly admired their creativity, I was terrified that our parenting was not enough.

So I asked someone for parenting advice.

I didn’t know her well but I admired how she related to her kids, kids much older than mine. I hoped at least for some tips on organization and discipline.

What she imparted was so much more.

Kids need free play, she said.


Don’t obsess too much on  programs after school she said. It’s more important that kids have time to play with

  • match box cars in the dirt.
  • Dolls on the porch.
  • Or read a book on the couch for a while.

Free play, she said, helped kids to relax, recharge and learn to problem solve.


After that,  I started to see the benefits of free play instead of the mess my kids made.  There was a depth to their pretending that allowed them to dream and create. This unstructured time gave them a safe space to process emotions and explore their abilities. Their confidence grew as they mastered the art of creating their own fun.

Free play benefited me too. It gave me a few moments to eat that bit of chocolate or just sit and breathe in a comfy chair. This simple act of facilitating free play  also helped me begin the process of letting go.

Calm down. I didn’t let my six year old rent his own apartment or my three year old take the public bus to the library.  I let go of the urge to “make things happen” all the time. My kids began to develop their separate selves in small ways while still connected to mom and dad.


Free play didn’t make me a parenting whiz. I had so much to learn. I still do.

The advice of free play did show me that wisdom shows up in simple ways and in manageable pieces. A glimpse of understanding when you least expect it. A talk with a friend. An article. A moment of silence that clears your head.

Even at the best of times, tons of parenting advice and information can come crashing down on your head. It’s ok, my friend,  to crawl out from underneath it all and carry on.

Wisdom knows where you live and will find you at the right time.