11 Ideas for Creative Free Play

Creative Free Play Encourages Child’s Development

Puppetry can be the first step in a child developing story-telling skills. 

For many of us, our memories of childhood are filled with mud pies, wooden block castles, and games of house, and hide-and-seek. At the core of these common childhood activities is creativity and freedom – the elements of play that transforms it from a time-filler and kid-quietener into an opportunity for learning and discovery that knows no bounds. Creative free play is quite the opposite of the structured and prescriptive play afforded to children in certain settings and with defined materials. Generally sparked by a play environment filled with loose and/or adaptable materials, creative free play is both developmentally beneficial (for all ages) and incredibly engaging and exciting.

With the final weeks of summer upon us, families still have time to take advantage of school-free days stretched out before us. Summer, by August, may no longer be such a novelty to kiddos and enjoying its warmth and sunny days is now a matter of course rather than a treat. However, filling some of the summer’s last few days with opportunities for creative free play as a family will stimulate your collective creativity, curiosity, and enthusiasm. Of course, the nature of creative free play is such that the possibilities for engaging in it are completely endless. It can be nice, though, to have some suggestions and gentle guidance, and for this families need look no further than Hilltown Families contributing writer Carrie St. John’s monthly column, What to Play? Play Ideas for Family and Community.

Artistic kids can engage in art-and-crafts-based creative free play this summer, drawing on inspiration from archived posts on how to use basic materials as catalysts for endless exploration. For some, creative engineering supports children in learning to make their own toys – an activity that will allow them to test their own designs, learn about how certain materials work with others, and lead them to the development of a new and interesting plaything to share. Use a thunderstorm-y afternoon to experiment with paint, and be sure to use homemade paints – the process of making them is an exploration in color mixing and basic kitchen chemistry. If children are missing friends made at summer camp, encourage them to become drawing pen pals. Not only will they get to send and receive mail (a treat generally reserved for adults!), but they’ll get to explore their daily life and landscape through pictures instead of words.

If you’re planning to spend lots of time outdoors during August, try adding a scavenger hunt to each of your adventures. Whether you play with your treasures outside or in, the materials you gather together will allow children to learn about the landscape that surrounds them and, more importantly, will provide them with a new set of play props. Days of outdoor exploration can also include creative free play in the form of miniature house building, an activity that takes full advantage of the intricately beautiful materials offered to us by a forest floor or field of grass. Ambitious families can even transform this activity into a full-sized endeavor, working together to utilize the largest of natural materials to create a special hideout to serve as a space to create within.

Woven throughout all of these activities are, of course, stories – the stories that children create to guide their play, and the stories that we tell later on about how we played. Stories themselves can be a catalyst for creative free play – try sparking play with inspiration derived from a book or use play as an opportunity to make up a new tale. Puppets and masks – handmade or otherwise – are similarly fantastic for the creation of free play-derived stories.

By the time you’ve exhausted all of these catalysts for creative free play, you’ll be experts! Encourage others to engage in creative free play and share some of your expertise by doing a little bit of what we’re calling guerilla play – the sharing of materials that can spark creative free play, so as to allow others to enjoy what you’ve been doing. And before you know it, you’ll be playing your way back to school!


[Photo credit: (cc) Mary Beth Wilkins], (c) Carrie St. John, (c) Sienna Wildfield]

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