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Why is free play challenging for some kids?

challenging free play

We all know how important and valuable free play can be for a child’s development. However, what happens when you have a child that really struggle with free play or when free play is challenging? How can you best support them? Why might they be struggling with something that seems so natural?

Today we are going to cover three reasons why children may struggle with free play. These reasons include interoception, social skills, and overwhelm. Let’s take a deeper look into why this might happen.

Overwhelm: some children may struggle with overwhelm, especially those that function better with structure and routine. They may struggle to identify what they want to play, or who they want to play with. They may also feel overwhelmed at the idea of having a choice to play, especially if most of their life is routine based. These routines feel safe and comfortable for them, and an open play can feel scary and overwhelming. Instead of making a schedule or routine for these children, you may want to encourage more free play. We want them to develop these skills on their own, but with support. In order to best support them, you may try to have them brainstorm ideas of what they like to play, and what activities make them feel good. Have them think about this before it is time for free play, so they might have an idea of what they like to do. Use art as a transition. For example, if you are going to the park, perhaps have the child draw what they would like to play at the park before you leave.

Interoception: This is the sense in the body that tells you what is happening in your body. A child may get excited about having so many choices, and that leads to an increased heart rate and breathing rate. This may be misinterpreted as anxiety, and can lead to aggression, frustration, uncontrolled movement, and overall dysregulation. To support this, you may want to try a warm up of mindful movement before free play. For example, if you first get to the park or outside, swing together for a few minutes and then talk about how it made you feel. Is your heart beating faster? What about your breathing? Wow, that means we are having fun. What do you think you will play next? For a classroom setting you may try a group game or even having everyone do some jumping jacks at first and then feeling heart rates and breathing rates. Bringing the attention and focus back to their body can help remind them that they are safe and create an easier transition. It is a good idea to transition off the playground or free play as well.

Social Skills: Social skills are such a challenge at all ages, and these can be really overwhelming during free play. When games are structured and routine, it is easier to know what to do and what is expected. Some children may struggle with understanding how to play together, how to share friends, how to start and leave an activity and more. You may have an anxious child that feels safer with strict rules and routines that tries to control how free play happens. One way you can support children that struggle with social skills is to help transition them as well. For example, if you are at a park, then walk around with them at the beginning and model the behavior they need support with. Ex: “Hey, this is John, he likes to play on the slides, do you like to play on the slides? Do you want to slide down after us?” Letting them see you start conversations like this helps to teach and model the behaviors they may need more support with.

Free play is so incredibly beneficial to the brain, body, and overall development of children. We need to encourage free play in order to build so many of these skills, but some children may need more support than others.

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