Encouraging Free Play

One of the parenting themes I’ve struggled with is balancing Aiden’s need for free play with time spent playing with him. I want him to learn things on his own, but also want to balance that with teaching / showing him new experiences. I am also wary of becoming a so-called helicopter parent.


I’m a bit of an introvert, believe it or not, and am more comfortable typing than talking. So, I’ve had to push myself from time to time to remember to talk and to sing to Aiden. To engage with him verbally. It was more of a struggle initially, with so little engagement from him as a baby, but now seems quite commonplace. Still, sometimes I need to remind myself to tell him about the world as we go about our day.

Now I often wonder about whether too much free play is a bad thing, as a toddler. At home and at playgroups, I like to just let him ‘go’ and will stand nearby in case he needs assistance or wants me to engage in play – if he wants me to help him with a walker, a push car or shows me a toy he wants me to name or help him with. When he gets tired, I’ll step in and engage him in play by showing him how certain toys work. For the most part, I think I’ve found a good balance.

My Worries

That said, I don’t leave Aiden alone in a room. I think this is partially determined by our space – our main floor, Aiden’s play area, has several stairs in it and he can, and has, fallen down them. He still often needs reminders to go down the stairs the right way. If I were to leave him in his play area, he would likely take a tumble. So, even though he has ‘free play’, it’s still with me ‘hovering’ nearby. Is that good or bad? Who knows.

Also, as you know, Aiden does get tired of his surroundings easily. He has an hour-or-so time limit for one place – be that our house or a playgroup or a playdate. When he’s ‘done’, we go elsewhere. I worry that I limit his creativity by taking him out. By presenting him with ‘new’ all the time, am I making him prone to get bored? Exacerbating the issue? Or am I simply working with his personality? Is this something he’ll ‘grow out of’ as he gets older and can do more with toys and on his own?

My Observations

I sometimes see parents or nannies who, to me, go too far to one extreme or the other. I see parents who do not watch their older toddlers as they interact with other kids, and that can lead to bullying with peers or younger children. If Aiden is involved, I encourage “gentle with the baby” play, but some children don’t listen. I think it’s important to give children their free play, but perhaps some observation is necessary in situations where younger children are involved. I have no opinions, as yet, about toddler-to-toddler interactions (do you?).

At the same time, can you over-parent with play? I have seen parents and nannies who are non-stop with their play. Constantly encouraging and engaging in new play. While its downright fantastic in itself to see, and that learning is incredible, I feel sad to see the loss of free play. I’ve see a child being given a ball, for example, to play toss. When that child tries to play on his own, tossing and running after the ball solo, the parent then steps in to ask the child to do a different activity, one with them instead. This repeats each time the child tries to make his own games.

I admit to not reading parenting books. I’ll come across things online, but I try to form my own opinions about things. I talk to other parents. I observe. I try to do what feels right to me. But playtime is something I think about a lot – I don’t know if this is because I’m doing the stay-at-home-mom thing, so I’m hyper-aware of wanting Aiden to be exposed to the right learning opportunities, but that’s where I’m at.

What are your opinions on play? Do you learn by watching other parents?


2 comments for Encouraging Free Play

  1. Carla Karreman says:

    You have absolutely found a very good balance!

  2. jessica says:

    I have the opposite worry: that I give Z too much free play. The fact that he can play independently is one of my favourite parts of this stage. I love having two free hands again. But I sometimes wonder if I should be engaging him in play more and more purposefully trying to teach him things.

    One thing I do feel confident about is that you can be present in the room without interfering with the independence of his play. In an open concept place like ours, leaving him totally alone isn’t really possible anyway, but I figure it’s independent play as long as I’m not hovering around watching. I do my own thing and he does his own thing and I just glance over from time to time to be sure he hasn’t started juggling fire or something.

    I have to agree with you that in a group play setting (e.g. playgroup, birthday party, kid-friendly restaurant) all kids need at least minimal supervision or the bigger kids tend to mow down the smaller kids, which can lead to injuries and tears. And I resent being the one who intervenes when two kids are name-calling or fighting over a toy when neither child is my own. Zayden is small so he needs more active supervision, but just because your child isn’t likely to fall or eat something he shouldn’t while he’s playing doesn’t mean you can ignore him completely in a public setting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *