With the festive season approaching, we mums have a near-audible whirring, whizzing going on in our brains as we try to compute exactly what we’ll get for our kids.

Before you opt for the gadget that will trigger the biggest scream of delight when unwrapped, you may wish to consider whether this gizmo will best nourish their imagination and promote their emotional, social and physical development.

The truth is not all play is the same.

Playable apps, gaming and generally watching screens are forms of passive entertainment. The imagination has already been taken care of by the adult game-makers. Kids are have fun and play but with little need to come up with fresh ideas or navigate social situations.

Board games and jigsaws foster active but directed play. The rules are tightly defined and children learn to follow them to achieve set goals.

Both of these can be fun, enriching and valuable, however, experts in child development agree that these should be balanced with healthy amounts of unstructured “free play”.

Free play is the undirected time where children can take the lead, create their own rules, act out their imagination, and investigate the world around them at their own pace.

Science has shown that free play can

  • encourage leadership skills
  • boost confidence
  • nurture imagination
  • develop cognitive abilities
  • promote physical activity and health
  • reduce fears
  • increase empathy
  • each kids to cooperate and work in groups

And that’s just the start. If you’re interested to learn more about the power of free play, then check out this infographic by WeTheParents.org. 

Benefits of free play for children

Gift and Toys That Encourage Free Play

Christmas is a great time to invest in toys and gifts that encourage children’s natural play instincts. Here are some practical ideas for presents that will do just that:

1) Dressing up outfits

Kids love imaginative role play. Fantasy costumes provide them with just the ingredients they need creating their magical worlds. Remember, that dressing up is for boys just as much as girls, and that going for “open-ended” costumes rather than branded ones is a good idea. This way they can choose or invent who they want to be, instead of getting stuck acting out Elsa or Spiderman on loop.

2) Frames, pegs and silks

Wooden frames and large silks (or blankets) to drape over them are incredible for free play. They quickly get used for building dens, castles, doctor surgeries, you name it. You’ll be amazed at the complex and creative ways that kids will use these simple structure-building materials. You just need to supply them and stand back.

3) Simple ride-on toys

A decent balance bike or scooter will encourage your children to get outdoors – the ultimate environment for free play. They also get used as part of their cops and robbers games. Again, going for a simple design rather than a branded Batman version leaves your child to fill in the blanks. They could be Batman but perhaps their own inventiveness will take them in a different direction.

4) Varied blocks and building pieces

Children love to build (and knock down). It is a great way for them to develop their manual dexterity and fine motor skills. Here are a few tips when buying building bits: firstly, go for generic LEGO as opposed to a Harry Potter LEGO set where they must follow instructions to reach a set goal; also, mix up the materials and opt for wooden blocks as well as plastic – this way kids learn about textures and other material qualities.

5) Soft and simple dolls

Dolls are a vital part of play for boys and girls alike. A soft and simple doll can become a child’s alter ego, and can actually support them when processing new experiences and feelings. Dolls soon become first friends or babies that need tending to, both make way for future caring relationships.

Give the Gift of Free Play

These are just a few examples to get you thinking. The main idea is to provide raw ingredients which your kids can use imaginatively in a myriad of different ways. Hopefully, this gives you some ideas and inspiration as you embark on your Xmas free-play gift list.