Do Your Kids Need More Free Play? Here Are Some Great Ideas!

A guest column by Pam Lobley for What To Do With The KidsChildren’s lives are often planned down to the minute.  They go from school to sports, dance, music lessons or Scouting.  They have homework.  Even weekends (especially weekends!) can be jammed with tournaments, practices, and tutoring.

Some kids thrive on that type of schedule; mine did not.  At one point several years ago, my two boys (then ages eight and ten) they were so overwhelmed and cranky at the amount of activities they were doing that we took the summer off and they did nothing. Except play.

With no camps, classes or organized sports, my children were able to fill their days with whatever they wanted to do and they thrived during their summer of “just” play.  This was exactly what they needed – a lack of structure that let their imagination and independence come to the fore.  Free play teaches flexibility and problem solving.  Kids learn negotiation and compromise as they make up rules to their own games and then have to play by them.  I watched my children gain from all those lessons and more.

If your children are whiney, combative or tense, they may simply need more play time. Their schedule may not seem hectic to you – but children need much more play time than you might think.  You may not be able to ditch all their scheduled activities like I did, but you can certainly take some easy steps to increase your child’s free play.


Find a safe place for the kids to play with minimal supervision from you. It could be your backyard, a park, or your basement on a rainy day.


Create a vacuum – a few hours where there is nothing for them to do and they are totally unplugged. During this time they must be unplugged from all phones and video games.  This will force them to play other things.


Get other kids together – 2, 3 or 25 kids, also unplugged, together and let them figure it out. This chunk of time is free for them to do what they want.


If children have been overscheduled for a long time, they may have temporarily “forgotten” how to play. Additionally, they may be unfamiliar with all the games that are usually passed down from kid to kid as they encounter each other at the park or at recess (remember Red Rover?)

Most times kids left on their own will surprise you with the funny and interesting games they makeup.  But if they can’t seem to get started, you can suggest some of the games below.  I’ve included instructions where it may be helpful.


Store: set up boxes with play food or old cans, grab some bags and maybe that old Fisher Price register or a calculator to tally items. They can even set up some type of board on a slant so they can roll the items down to simulate the conveyer belt. Let the kids shop away.

War: two opposing sides battle. They can use play swords, play guns, water guns, pretend they are shooting arrows, etc. They can even just tag to capture each other.

Castle: like war, except you have a castle to attack/defend. The “castle” can be your garage, or a jungle gym, or a just a group of trees.

Dress Up: keep a box of old clothes/hats/Halloween costumes. They can dress up as specific thing: superhero, astronaut, doctor, etc. or just make it up with funny combinations. Once they are dressed they will usually play pretend as that character.

Tea Party: not just for girls! We had a plastic tea set and the boys would set it up with their action figures and then the “guests” would purposely have bad manners and spill the pretend tea.  Spiderman chewed with his mouth open . . . you get the idea.

House (with variations: Prairie House, Beach House, etc.): this can be set up anywhere inside or outside. Kids play the dad, mom, baby, grandma, dog, neighbor, whoever or whatever.

Hide and Seek: outside or inside, it never gets old.

Band: use play instruments or pots and wooden spoons and they could be a marching band. They can even mime having a trumpet and make the sounds themselves.

School: set up chairs and a “blackboard.” Kids take turns being the teacher and calling on students, etc.

Follow the Leader: kids line up and the leader walks around marching, singing, jumping over a log, etc. Kids follow the leader’s actions.

Simon Says: the leader, “Simon” gives a direction to the other players, using the name first, i.e., “Simon says, – Touch your toe” or “Simon says, – Whistle.”  Players obey directions.  Simon will occasionally give a direction without first specifying “Simon says.”  Anyone following a direction that not prefaced by “Simon says” is out.

Charades: you may have to play this with them a few times until they get the hang of it.

Good Guys v. Bad Guys: (This could be cops/robbers, superheroes/villains, Jedi/aliens, etc.) same concept as war, but may include a jail for the bad guys or other place to capture the enemy.

Tag (or Freeze Tag): there are so many fun variations on this:  Toilet Tag (they flush your extended arm to unfreeze you), Monster Tag (freeze in the pose of your favorite monster), Candle Tag (when tagged you melt – someone needs to unfreeze you before your melt to the ground), Amoeba Tag (you tag and join hands growing bigger and bigger and then split when you have four), etc.

Leap frog: best for the younger set, because there is no clear “win” here.  Kids take turns crouching down while another child “leaps” over their back by placing their hands on the crouched person’s back and vaulting over them.  Leaping continues in a line or circle with the last person leaping to the front and then starting again.

Hopscotch: no need to go to a playground – you can draw your own on a sidewalk or driveway.

Box Ball: (also called Foursquare): you need a ball (like a kickball) and a large paved area for this. Some schools or playgrounds have this painted on the ground, or you can bring your own chalk and draw a large square divided into four equal quadrants, each one about 4 x 4 feet, numbered one to four.  The Number One player serves, bouncing the ball to any player.  Player must return to the ball to any other square with just one bounce and using only one touch to the ball.  The ball is bounced from one square to the others.  If it bounces out of a players box, that player is out and everyone move ups a square.  Players try to get to Number One.

Duck, Duck, Goose: children sit in a circle, one player is “it” and stands up behind them.  He taps each person on the head as he walks around the circle.  With each tap he declares, “duck, duck, duck” – when he taps someone and calls them “goose”, the goose must get up and chase the tapper around the circle.  If the goose can’t catch him before he makes his way all around the circle and sits down in the goose’s spot, then the goose becomes “it.”

Kick the Can:  a can (bucket, paint can, etc.) is placed in the middle of a field or yard.  One person is “it” – they cover their eyes while all other players hide.  Then the “it” person tries to the find and tag the other players.  When she does, that player goes to jail.  Any free player can kick the can (tip it over) to free a jailed person.  Players are freed in the order in which they were captured.  Game continues until all players are captured or the person caught tipping the can is tagged.

Red Rover: kids make two lines opposite each other across a field.  They link hands to make a chain.  One line shouts to the other, naming a kid to “send over”.  “Red rover red rover send Mikey right over! – The kid tries to barrel through the chain, breaking through clasped hands.  If a child succeeds, the two whose hands broke return to the opposing team.  If he does not succeed, he must join that team and the madness continues.

Red Light, Green Light: one kid stands across the yard or park with her back to the rest of the kids. Back turned, she yells, “green light” and the kids start running toward her. At any point she can yell “red light” and turn around. When she turns around, all kids must be stopped, frozen in their tracks. Any kid still moving when she turns around is out. She returns to facing away from the kids and yells “green light.” This keeps going until someone reaches her and tags her before she can stop them with a “red light.”

Mother, May I?: one child is the “mother” and all the other children line up facing her some distance away. The mother calls on each kid and tells them to “take one giant step” or “three baby steps” toward her. The child must ask “Mother May I?” before they move, and the mother will answer yes or no. If they don’t ask, they have to go back to the starting line. First one to get up to “Mother” wins. You can use all kinds of steps: baby, giant, turning, crab steps, bunny hops, tiptoe, leap, etc.

Man in the Middle: you need at least three people. Two people try to keep a ball or Frisbee away from the “man in the middle”. When the middle guy catches the ball, the one who threw it has to rotate into the middle.

Capture the Flag: two teams each hide a piece of cloth – their flag.  Then they try to find the other team’s flag and capture it, taking it to their home base.

Running Bases: set up two bases a distance apart.  The bases could be trees, a rock, a bush, a cone – anything.  Two players throw a ball back and forth while other players try to run back and forth between the two bases without getting tagged by one of the throwers with the ball.  If a runner gets tagged three times, he becomes a thrower.

Manhunt: one person hides. Everyone looks for them. Great for large places – like 3 or 4 adjacent backyards. There are many variations on this, which you can find by searching it on the web, and it’s great at night with flashlights.

Wall Ball: you need a wall (like the side of a big building) and a small rubber ball or a tennis ball. Two or more people take turns throwing the ball at the wall, another player catches it and throws it at the wall. There are many versions of this game with various rules, you can make it as competitive (missing the ball gets you out) or relaxed as the kids want it to be.

Besides games, children could also:

Go “camping” in the backyard: no official tent necessary, set up sheets and blankets and just sleep under the stars or zonk out on the trampoline.

Build a Fort: inside with pillows, outside with whatever is around.

Jump Rope: you can get a long rope that two people operate and the third jumps in, you can also get two ropes and have them going at once in “double Dutch” fashion.

Put on a Show: they can make one up or act out stuff they see on TV or in the movies, scenes from Toy Story or Little Mermaid, etc.

Put on a Puppet Show: they can make puppet with old socks or just use their stuffed animals.

Make mud pies: Okay, I admit I’ve never done this. But I did let my kids play in huge mud puddles after rainstorms, kicking and splashing and getting soaked and filthy. Then they took a long bath (with toys) while I did the laundry and had a cup of tea. Not a bad afternoon.

Play with/in a big box: use one from a delivery of an appliance or large item, the box can be a car, a spaceship, etc. Let kids draw, cut, or roll it.

They might go through a handful of ideas and then start complaining. Fine. Sometimes they need to go through a brief complaining/boredom phase before their creativity kicks in.  Try filling a jar with ideas you and your kids come up with – they can read through them when they need some help in deciding what to do.

One final note – try to be as uninvolved as possible.  You may have to teach them a game, but then back out.  Playing on their own is the best part for them!  Arguing over the rules, accusing each other (“you’re out!”) or bickering about whose turn it is might be unpleasant for you to listen to, but those things are a vital part of the free play experience and should not be smoothed over by an adult unless necessary.

Bonus … while they’re playing, you will probably get some free time to catch up on your own chores or relax. I really hope so.


Pam Lobley is a columnist, instructional aide and author.  This piece is an adapted excerpt from her memoir, Why Can’t We Just Play? What I Did When I Realized My Kids Were Way Too Busy, the droll and poignant story of a summer she spent “doing nothing” with her kids.  She blogs on her own site,



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