What Happens When You Give a Kid a Box? They have the Most Awesome FUN

Kids need more Free-Play! Learn what is is and why it's Important?

By Bethany Marcello / Brenna Gutell July 29, 2022

Free-Play! What is it? Why is it so important to make sure your kids have time to - just PLAY! No instructions needed! No Grown-up help needed. Just sit back and let them PLAY!

How about all those toys filling your home that they just had to have? How many do they still play with? Have you noticed it's the boxes and string, tape, and markers that get more attention and interest than the expensive toys & gadgets? My oldest loved to play with all sorts of things from paperclips to rubber bands and tape, to this day I still have trouble finding paperclips. Also he used to take apart all my pens, but that's a conversation for another day.

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1) Why is free-play important?

No matter what you call it: Free-Play, Child-led Play, or something else . . . the most important part it to just - Let them PLAY! 

Free - when used in relation to play, seems to spark the idea that a child has free reign over their play. Suggesting they Choose . . . the materials, actions and who to play with, even if it's no one. They decide when to begin and end their play. This kind of play has positive benefits for social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development in children. It lets children engage in healthy risks, learn to work with others, and problem solve. 

Play guided and planed by grow-ups, parents and teachers is not all bad, but it often limits creativity, problem-solving, and cooperative skills. There is an increase in children suffering from depression, anxiety, obesity, and being over-scheduled. But there is hope! More and more parents, teachers, caregivers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles out there are recognizing the need for children have for free - undirected play!

2) Is parent-directed play bad?

No, it is not bad, it has it's place and it's benefits. Parents and caregivers should remember - Play has a purpose. It's how children learn; not just one of the ways, but the way. 

Resist the urge to do it for them. Let them explore, experiment, manipulate, build, teardown, etc. - let them be free to do it their own way. Puzzles, games and other toys with specific outcomes are not bad; they build skills like cognitive development and fine motor skills. Once they master those move on to self directed toys like blocks and Legos where they the outcome is not fixed or just send them outside to explore. Children's toys should not be limiting. Of course kids can take a game with rules and direction and still make up their own, I loved to do this as a child.

Need some ideas? I'm sure you already have these at home: a box, tape, some markers, and even some goodies from your recycling bin can give a child the opportunity to create and learn something new!

3) Is your child "free-playing" correctly?

What does it look like?
That's the thing,  there is no right or wrong way to free-play! Let them be and you'll be just fine. Free play does not mean you cannot join in, ask if you can play? Let them tell you what they are doing and how you can play too. Follow their lead, and just "Have Fun!" 

As adults, we can certainly assist, but let them come to you; don't assume they need help at the first sign of struggle. Working through struggles, fears, and frustrations are all part of their development. 

4) Don't be scared of free-play? 

How to overcome?
Today's there seem too much pressure to enroll children in extracurricular activities, leaving very little, if any, time to just play. Screen time has become a the go-to for many of us grown-ups to help occupy restless or bored kids. Often schools give homework and other assignments that eat up much of their after-school time. By the time they get home they are just done - Free-play is the perfect answer to engage and enrich them. Some parents may think they get enough play time at school or that play is "just for fun," but they need more. 

While play is absolutely fun, it is so much more than that. Is has been described as "the work of a child." One suggestion for overcoming this type of thinking is to spend uninterrupted time together as a family doing something enjoyable together that the child picks. I know parents who do "no screen time weekends" (or even full summers) and instead, they spend that time together as a family. Get outdoors or grab a bucket of Legos and just have fun!

Don't be afraid of free play - give it a try! I can't tell you how many "ah-ha" moments I've seen from parents as they watch their child engage at Pop-Up Play events. It doesn't take long to notice the actual learning that is taking place during this type of play, so I encourage you to give it a try! 

5) Here are some great ideas: 

Free-play ideas for a preschooler: 

I like to think of preschoolers as little scientists. They never fail to amaze me with their creativity and inventiveness. Loose items work extremely well for this age. Loose items are anything (safe) you have lying around your house that could be used to create--old sheets and towels, jar lids, measuring cups, sticks, rocks, marbles, etc. The list is endless, and it's fun to search your home for this kind of "junk"! You can also add in art supplies like tape, paint, or cotton balls. 

Elementary-aged and middle schoolers: 

Elementary and middle school-aged children need to be active. They sit for long periods of time during the school day and have little time for free play activities. Large boxes are great for building box forts or storefronts. Or, letting them run free at a local park is a great way to get out built-up energy. Climbing trees, jumping off rocks, and digging in dirt or mud are all activities that we may find "risky or messy," but this age desperately needs.

Don't forget the Grown-ups:

When it comes to adults, I love to hand them pop-up play materials and let them loose to create. Adults, unlike most children, are hesitant with this kind of creative freedom, but the creations they end up with are usually amazing! I believe that play is just as necessary for adults as it is for children, just for different reasons. 

Supply ideas:

From around the house: 

I don't know about you, but I have a pile of boxes at my house, big and small from all the online ordering I do. These make a great start. They can cut them up or just tape them together. How about paper-towel or toilet-paper rolls - they make great tracks for mini cars like Hot Wheels and Matchbox. Egg cartons are the best and have so many uses, you can even use them for plants and put them right in the garden. How about old clothing? Let them cut strips of fabric or tie strips together to make a rope.

From the store:

Fun doesn't have to be expensive, it doesn't take much to inspire creativity in kids. The dollar type stores or bargain bins can be a treasure trove of fun goodies for accents and accessories. Craft stores too. My kids LOVE pipe-cleaners, they are fuzzy and bendy! Lets not forget those googly eyes, they come in all shapes and sizes - even different colors. My boys used to love to stick them on everything. Let's not forget the stickers. Kids love stickers, I got to the point that I stocked up anytime I found fun stickers - check the dollar stores.

Don't forget what makes all of this come together - tape, glue and string:

Masking tape works great and most kids can just tear it - sometimes you can even find it in different colors. Want something a bit stronger, how about some duct tape - it even comes in fun colors and patterns, you can tear it, but it's a bit harder so they might need a scissors. Clear tap works good, just give them some supplies and let them choose. 

DIY Box Marble Run

DIY Box Marble Run

Want to see an amazing example of just how creative a kid can be with cardboard and some time to Free-Play?

Updated and edited July 29, 2022 by Brenna Gutell, Publisher Macaroni KID Conejo Valley - Malibu - Calabasas