Play is what young mammals do when they feel safe and well. It’s one way they bond and learn, so lack of play is a good indicator that something is wrong. Play is a basic instinct and the right kind of play, which is endangered in modern society, is critical for optimum development: Lots of outdoor, independent, creative/free, and social play is our evolutionary baseline. Children need hours a day of free-play, much of it outdoors in nature.
Through social free play, children learn to be responsive to others—if you are not sensitive to your wrestling partner’s complaints about too much roughness, for example, your partner will stop playing with you. The playing child, then, has to learn to pick up the cues and then stop and shift to a different behavior—“executive functions” as scientists call them, that grow from experience. The child learns what “works” in the environment, both socially and with materials: "How resilient is that stick? What games can I invent with my playmates to test our skills? Can I climb to the top of this?" This is how a child exercises her creative thinking, tests cause and effect in the natural world, and learns what her body can do. She’s growing social skillsand, creativity as well as physical skills. All this leads to greater mental as well as physical health. Play is the important work of childhood.
How to Parent for Free Play
Resist the intense societal push for early academics. Chose free, social play instead.
Make time and tools for imaginative play a priority.
Get regular access to green space.
Play with your child.
Interact face-to-face with your infant and encourage others to do so, often. The brain is forming accordingly.
Reduce screen time and encourage creative play instead.
Don't feel you have to keep your child under thumb. Age-appropriate oversight is necessary, but over-controlling is detrimental to thinking and growing self-efficacy.
Don't over-structure or over-schedule your child's activities.
With attention to your child's comfort, provide opportunities for a variety of activities, but don't push when your child expresses anxiety.
Provide opportunities for social interaction as much as possible (as your child likes.).