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Movement Experiences for Children
KIN 366
Instructor: Dr. Shannon S.D. Bredin
Office Hours:
Class Schedule:
Important Course Pages
Lecture Notes
Course Discussion

Free play is spontaneous activity that is intrinsically motivating and pleasurable (Missiuna & Pollock, 1991). In contrast to structured play, which is planned and led by adults, free play is child-driven. It offers children the option to choose the activities they have an interest for, and the freedom to terminate activities they do not find satisfying (Santer, Griffifths, Goodall, 2007). Eventually, when free play becomes interactive with peers and adults, they independently learn how to negotiate and resolve conflict with others. When children are constrained by rules that adults impose, they lose the opportunity to develop skills that free play touches on - leadership, creativity, and teamwork. As these skills are learned through free play, it helps the child gain the confidence and grit necessary to face obstacles in the future. Additionally, free play can be seen as a determinant of a child’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being. In many instances, it can be a stress-reliever by allowing less talkative children to express their views and emotions. This in turn, lets adults visualize and gain a better understanding of the child’s perspective (Ginsburg, 2007).

Age-related Free Play Behaviour

Free play is unique to the different stages of development, with each stage reflecting its own characteristic play behaviours. Having an understanding of age-related free play behaviours provides a structure for different forms of children’s free play. This assists adults in providing the appropriate environments to facilitate these forms of free play (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002).


During infantry, the purpose of free play is to interact with objects in their surroundings through their senses. It is through this exploration that they develop preferences, decision-making skills, and motor skills (Santer et al.2007). Play is usually independent and egocentric, meaning the focus is on the infant’s own needs (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002). The exploratory nature of play during this period has attracted ideas such as the ‘treasure basket’ by Goldschmied and Jackson (1994). It is a basket with natural objects such as pine cones, shells and natural objects that provide optimal stimulation for the child during their free play time.


As children reach toddlerhood, they become more mobile, and learn to execute movements such as standing, walking alone, and sitting down (Longo, Reschke, & Barber, 2002). They also begin to play alongside other children, even though there is no interaction involved (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002). A common form of free play during this time frame is heuristic play, where the organization of objects and timing is led by adults, but the play time is free for the child to choose what they wish to do (Featherstone, 2013). For instance, children may be exposed to bags of a random assortment of objects and materials with a variety of textures and shapes. This allows them the chance to make interactions with these objects as well as make interactions between objects. When children choose items and piece them together, they develop concepts such as “movement, shape, space, mass, length, weight, one-to-one correspondence and seriation” (Moyles, 2012, p.69). Heuristic play allows children to develop concentration towards the tasks they enjoy as well as competencies in the physical manipulation skills they practice.

Early Childhood

In early childhood, children begin to play informal games as part of their free play time. Such games may include hopscotch and jump roping. This allows for further development of muscular coordination, social skills, and teamwork skills. It is during this stage that they begin forming their own rules for games which helps to master use and understanding of language and numbers (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002).

Late Childhood and Early Adolescence

As children reach their late childhood and early adolescence, they begin to develop orderly thinking. As a result, their free play tends to revolve around games that are structured with rules, or organized sports. Through increased social awareness, there is less emphasis on free play with parents than with peers. Through assuming different roles in these activities, they start to form an identity of themselves with respect to their environment (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002).

Neural Development

Free play supports the development of neural structures that takes place from childhood to adolescence. During this period, nerves, neural pathways and the connections are established. Cells and synapses are also forming up to the age of five. At the same time, the brain exhibits plasticity or flexibility to make changes to neural pathways and synapses. Myelination, which is the coating of a myelin sheath on nerves, is crucial to the retention of information and delivery of signals to the intended receptor (Deoni et al., 2011). Myelination of the eyes and organs of touch come first before the areas that facilitate movement. This is so that they are able to visualize and touch objects in their surroundings before they initiate the necessary movements. Therefore, it is through the explorations and activities in free play that children develop gross and fine motor control. When the brain is not optimally stimulated during this period, these neural structures are removed through a process called pruning (Seeman, 1999). Providing an optimal stimulus through free play is vital to achieving full potential of the brain. The practice and repetition of explored movements involved in free play create responses in the central nervous system. Practice helps to speed up responses in the nervous system until they become automated (Santer et al., 2007).

Factors and Repercussions of Reducing Free Play

Change in Education Curriculum

Despite how free play is a strong correlate to health benefits, recent trends have shown a drop in free play time to make space for academics. Since the 1980’s, the drop in free play time has been replaced by an increase in structured play time that is imposed by adults (Burdette & Whitaker, 2005). Studies have shown that only 70% of kindergarten classrooms had a recess period, which takes away from the free play time of children (Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005). In the US, the No Child Left Behind Act implemented in 2001, caused many school districts to reduce recess, creative arts, and physical education, which is usually when free play happens during school. A heavier emphasis was placed on reading and mathematics. The change in education curriculum has not been shown to relate to an increase in cognitive effort. However, the change in curriculum has led to a decrease in the amount of physical release that children require, and insufficiently fulfills the need for movement. It can also explain the greater academic achievement of girls compared to boys. By promoting a more sedentary style of learning it can make it more difficult for boys to learn in the classroom (Pellegrini, Kato, Blatchford & Baines, 2002).

Competitive Mindset

Additionally, with the baby boom reaching college years, the college admissions process has become much more competitive (Ginsburg, 2007). Specialized enrichment programs are widely marketed to parents as a way of enhancing children’s learning. As parents become swayed by advertisements, they develop a competitive mindset, and tend to invest more time in structured activities for their child. In doing so, the amount of free play time is compromised (Luthar & Becker, 2002). When children reach the extent of being overburdened with structured activities, they may develop anxiety or other signs of stress (Villaire, 2003). In fact, depression is on the rise amongst children and adolescents. There is a possible link between the early preparation for a high-achieving adulthood and the suffering of mental health (Ginsburg, 2007).

Quality of Free Play Environment

Most physical activity done by children is in the form of free play. In light of the rising trend in obesity, a decrease in quality free play time has made large cuts to the amount of daily physical activity time (Burdette & Whitaker, 2005). Studies show that childhood obesity has doubled in children in the last thirty years, and more than one third of children and adolescents are obese (Centers for Disease Control, 2014). Less time is being spent towards quality free play in outdoor natural environments. It is estimated that children today spend fewer than thirty minutes a week in outdoor activities (McFarland, Zajicek, & Waliczek, 2014). Of the time that is spent doing unstructured free play, most of it is spent doing passive indoor activities such as playing video games, watching television or going on the computer. The decrease in the quality of free play time has been shown to increase the risk of obesity and related diseases such as coronary heart disease and hypertension (Santer et al., 2007).

Outdoor Natural Environment

Society is moving in a direction that promotes a sedentary lifestyle and deemphasizes the outdoor natural environment that has played a bigger role in children a generation ago (Santer, 2007). The outdoor natural environment has been shown to be the strongest predictor of physical activity. In addition, activity levels are enhanced amongst three and four year olds with play outdoors than indoors (Baranowski, Thompson, DuRant, Baranowski, & Puhl, 1993). Specifically, the components of basic movements such as balance and coordination are noticeably improved. In a study that evaluated changes in motor fitness of children in response to a natural play environment, significant improvements were noted. Those that had spent time in a natural play environment showed improved results in the Flamingo Balance Test, and Indian Skip Coordination Test (Fjørtoft, 2004). The outdoor natural environment is a stimulating free play environment for children to explore and develop play behaviour and motor skills. It is unique in that it provides opportunities for free play, and allows for the construction and re-organization of play settings (Fjørtoft, 2004). Unlike the indoor environment, it allows for noise, movement, and use of a wider variety of raw materials such as sand, dirt, water, and construction materials (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002). As such, a natural environment offers a variety of affordances to children. Affordances are the functions that an environmental object offers to an individual and these affordances are critical to maximizing the motor learning of children. For example, if a rock has a surface that is flat and smooth, it affords the child a place to sit (Fjørtoft, 2004).

Parental Influence on Free Play Environment

Parents play a role in managing the type of play environment a child is exposed to, and therefore, have an influence on the quality of free play time a child will receive. Parents’ perceptions of their environment strongly predict the likelihood and amount of free play time that a child could receive in outdoor environments. On a national poll, eighty percent of parents believe that their children played outdoors less than they did themselves as children (Santer, 2007). Neighborhood crime rate is closely tied to the amount of free play outdoors that parents will allow children access to. As shown in a study, parents who perceive a high crime rate in their neighborhood would confine their child’s free play environment to their yard, which is a safer alternative to outdoor locations such as the street or park. In addition, parents who perceive their neighborhood streets to have high vehicle traffic are less likely to have their children play on the streets. Streets that involve a cul-de-sac are more favourable for free play due to the protective nature of the design (Veitch, Salmon, & Ball, 2010).

Recommendations to Parents for Enhancing Free Play

Support For Children

One of the ways parents impact free play time is through the support they give. Proper education ensures that parents take the right approach. A mistake parents commonly make is intervening too early in the free play process which robs children of the opportunity to problem solve, make reflections, and learn from their mistakes. The timing of parent interventions is crucial so that they can be of assistance at the appropriate times. Parents should be made aware that their foremost role should be to provide a physically and psychologically appropriate environment for the child to develop a sense of security, self-worth, worth of others, and the freedom to explore. By being cooperative and responsive with feedback, children will be able to become more securely attached. Inconsistency and a lack of sensitivity during free play are likely to cause psychological damage to the child. By being observant, the parent is able to gain a better understanding of the child’s interests, which can help with selecting the proper resources for creating a rich environment (Santer et al., 2007).

Time Investment

In addition to providing an optimal environment, the amount of time that parents dedicate for free play is equally as important. As discussed, the media depicts a growing need for adult-driven structured play time and specialized enrichment programs for children to achieve success. Nowadays, these specialized enrichment programs can come in the form of videos and computer programs that promote sedentary behaviour and passive activity in children. When parents are persuaded to make room for these activities, less time is being invested into free play. It is recommended that parents prioritize free play, and regulate the quality of free play time so that passive activity or entertainment is reduced, and free play in outdoor natural environments is enhanced. Therefore, parents should be educated on the physical, mental, and social health benefits of free play so that they can rationalize giving priority to free play (Ginsburg, 2007).


As previously addressed, the issue of crime and traffic safety, is of major concern for parents who contemplate allowing their children play on the streets. For parents who live in neighborhoods with high crime rates, getting involved in neighborhood safety programs may be an effective strategy to take on. Such initiatives in Canada include the Block Watch Society of BC, which tackles the issue of neighborhood crime by forging relationships between residents and businesses, as well as the police and the community. By getting involved, residents make the commitment to keep watch of each other’s homes and to report suspicious behaviour to the police. In return, the program assists police agencies with problem solving and providing ongoing strategies for creating positive change in the community (Block Watch, 2015). To address the issue of traffic safety, parents can advocate for roads that limit traffic such as a cul-de-sac. Another method can be to limit traffic through residential streets during after-school hours (Veitch et al., 2010).


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