How Free Play Influences Critical Thinking Skills

How Free Play Influences Critical Thinking Skills

For kids across the country, the pinnacle of playtime is about to be reached – summer vacation. One of the reasons kids love summer vacation (other than no homework!) is that they have more leisure time to play with their friends or on their own. What your child probably doesn’t know is that this unstructured free play is actually building their critical thinking skills, developing their muscle tone and coordination, and promoting their creativity by allowing their imaginations to run wild.

Many times our child’s day during the school year is scripted and scheduled. Every minute of their day is carefully calculated from one class to the next, one activity leading to a lesson leading to a practice. As parents, we believe that we are providing the most enriching opportunities for our child. However, recent studies have shown that one of the best ways for kids to develop critical thinking and brain development is to engage in free play.

The Brain Benefits of Free Play

Free play is both beneficial and crucial for the brain’s healthy development. A child’s frontal cortex, which is responsible for problem-solving and controlling emotions, is activated during free play. When a child is playing, the brain is making neurotransmitter connections that are directly related to the growth and stimulation of critical thinking and reasoning. Researcher Sergio Pellis states that the “experience of play changes the connections on the neurons in the front end of your brain.” When those changes occur, it prepares the brain for making plans, solving problems, and regulating emotions. For children who do not have these extended free play experiences, their brains are not wired to tackle the upcoming challenges of childhood and young adulthood with the same ease.

Free Play Encourages Independent Decision Making

Children have dozens of decisions made for them every day, whether it’s what to wear, what to eat, their mode of transportation, how they’ll structure their essay, or what chores they need to complete. Parents are often too eager to rush in and try to solve a child’s problem because they are used to setting these daily rules and functions. If a child forgets their beach toys, the parent might run to the store to grab new ones. However, free play is a perfect setting for children to exercise their independent decision-making skills. Has your child forgotten their beach toys? Encourage them to come up with a creative solution, such as utilizing the items that have been brought to their advantage. You’ll be pleasantly surprised that your child might be able to fashion a makeshift scooper out of a plastic drinking cup.

Free Play Allows Complex Problem Solving

If you were to watch a group of children in the park playing a made-up game, you would be surprised how intricate they often become. Kids can create mini-fiefdoms, complex rules and guidelines, and even hierarchies all based on the parameters they’ve set during this free play time. With limited structure or rules, kids are amazingly adept at solving complex problems and making critical thinking decisions based on what activity they are doing with their peers. Children need space and practice to perfect these complex problem-solving skills, and free play is the perfect opportunity to work on this.

The next time your child asks to go to the park, play outside, or hang out at the beach, don’t dismiss it as idle free time. Think of this free play time as a great way for their young brains to develop in a different capacity.