How to calm your strong-willed child with free play (and it’s good for them too!)

I’ve just set off on a year of travel with my husband and 5-year-old daughter, Lila, and it’s been a whirlwind start to the trip. We’re only 3 weeks into our travels but I’ve already realised what my daughter needs this year to feel happy: free play!

I have to admit it’s been hard for Lila to leave her home and friends and familiar life to go and travel – and therefore hard for us. We’ve had all sorts of tricky behaviour (e.g. refusing to get in the car seat!) as she protests being uprooted.

But every time we stop and stay in the one place for a few days, Lila settles herself in by playing her own way – and this leads to her behaviour dramatically improving – no coincidence, I’d say!

Usually her free play involves collecting flower petals and leaves to put them in bowls for a "picnic"! Or she’ll arrange little objects she finds around the rooms into patterns or games. None of that works if we stay in a sterile hotel, of course, so we’ve learnt to stay in Air BnB houses where there’s a garden and random objects to be found!

Play for kids so important – they need it to feel FREEDOM. They need it to learn and make sense of their world. And, of course, they want to have fun!

But, as I’ve being finding, play is also a key way to help them calm down and feel in charge of their own little lives – which results in better behaviour.

So if you’re struggling with your child constantly refusing to do what you ask and pushing back against all your plans, try giving them more free play – it may just help!

This makes total sense to me. There’s so much research showing that free play is crucial for kids to develop a healthy pre-frontal cortex – that’s the part of the brain where emotional regulation, impulse control and social skills take place. And it’s where we humans process stress – the prefrontal cortex calms our nervous system.

In fact, some researchers even say that the loss of free play in kids’ lives is one of the major factors causing the increase in stress, anxiety and depression in our children and teenagers. Anxiety and depression are strongly correlated with feeling a lack of control in one’s life.

So, when kids get to do free play, they are in charge and this builds their sense of control in their life – and reduces their stress and anxiety.

But instead of free play, the average child now spends most of his or her spare time on screens or in organised activities. Over the 1990s and 2000s kids’ free play time went down by 8 hours per week. What’s more, ‘helicopter’ parenting, where adults supervise kids’ games due to fears about safety, leads to even less free play.

So to help our kids grow up feeling happy, calm and free, rather than anxious and stressed, we need to give them as much free, unstructured play as we can. And I’m not just talking about preschool children here – school kids needs free play just as much (or more) given how structured their school days are.

(In case you’re wondering, free play actually makes our kids smarter! One study in the US found that children whose parenting and early childhood education was play-oriented had significantly higher IQ’s at age five than did a comparable group of children.)

So what does free play look like? It’s where kids gets to make up their own play without things like video games, TV, board-games or toys limiting what they do. So the fewer “toys’ or gear involved the better – keep it simple.

The idea is that you (or another adult) hasn’t decided what they’re going to do with the game – it’s totally up to them.

Here are some of the best ways to help your kids get free, unstructured play time:

1. Outdoor Play in Nature

Ever watched how happily most kids play at the beach? That’s what outdoor free play is like. So send your children into the garden, the park or the beach and they’ll find pebbles, sand, dirt, water, flowers, seedpods or shells to play with. Let them get messy mixing mud pies or digging tunnels.

Is the weather bad, or you don’t have any space outside? Bring nature inside with sandplay or pebble boxes, containers of shells or a mini garden bed.

I’ve created a Pinterest Board with some great examples of these - if you’re on Pinterest check it out!

2. A picnic or tea party

Your child can use a tea or picnic set or just plastic things from the kitchen to create a picnic on a blanket. They love to set out the meal – even using flowers, leaves or pebbles as food. Or you can let them use real food if it’s snack time.

3. Craft or Drawing

It's likely you already provide your kids with paper and pencils – but you can go further and put out craft materials like glue, scissors, coloured paper and sticks etc and let go about the mess! Allow them to go for it.

But if you do want to limit the mess play-doh or clay is a great option. Or send them outside with coloured chalk if you really want to avoid the mess!

And remember, it’s not just girls who like to do craft – give your boys plenty of chance to draw and construct things too.

4. Physical Play

Now I know some of you are thinking, “Well, my child won’t sit still long enough to do most of these things!” For very active kids, create some physical play spaces not just outside, but indoors too for bad weather days. In a playroom, their bedroom, or even the garage, you can put things like beanbags, pillows, huge soft toys, a slide, a hammock or an indoor swing – even a rock climbing wall if you have the budget!

5. Making Cubby Houses

A special mention goes to cubby houses because kids LOVE making little houses for themselves! And it’s an easy indoor or outdoor game. Just give them big cardboard boxes or let them use the furniture and blankets or sheets to create their own hideaway, perfect for imaginary play.

6. Dress-Ups and Make Believe

Create a pile of dress-up clothes from the local charity shops and let them create their own role plays or games. Younger kids will often like to do make-believe with their soft toys as well. This is not a girls-only game – boys enjoy dressing up as characters and doing role play too!

And a final mention - Boredom is OK – in fact, it’s useful. Kids then have to work out for themselves how to occupy themselves and this involves being creative and self-motivated. All good things.

So if your school age kids complain about boredom and ask for the iPad, RESIST and point them towards the garden or the craft gear to create a game.

Whether you're at the start of the school year, or the middle, see if you can find more time in 2018 for your kids to do free play (and let me know if it helps them calm down, co-operate and be happier!).

PS. If you’re regularly getting into battles with your strong-willed child, don't forget to download my free "Battle to Calm" Cheat Sheet - it gives you six ways to end the battles with your kids and get them to listen to you.