What Happened To Free Play?

Pink Oatmeal is excited to have Darice Cunniff posting today on the importance of free play in our classrooms.  Darice has been an elementary teacher for over 35 years with the majority of her time spent in the Kindergarten classroom and how she has seen it change over her time in the classroom. 

As a teacher for the past 35 years, it’s hard to see what is happening to free play in  kindergarten and even the preschool classrooms.  Free play is being eliminated to spend more time on literacy, math and testing!  It’s not just free play, but class plays, high interest units and themes, music, art and even enriching literature are being eliminated. Teachers are being told all curriculum needs to be embedded in specific literacy and math time.  It’s sad to think many teachers and administrators believe this.

Free Play -Pink Oatmeal
©dmitrimaruta/Dollar Photo Club

Free Play = Self Directed Learning

About 20 years ago, I took a class from a very excellent college instructor.  The instructor gave “free play” the name
“Self-directed Learning”. He used this term because some teachers were being questioned by their administrators about “free play” in the lesson plan. (I guess the assumption was the teacher was having free time.) Free play is an important part of child development.  It’s creativity and imagination development, language and vocabulary development, problem solving, socialization, gross and fine motor development, and cognitive skills. To omit free play out of the day is beyond my philosophy of child development.  I eventually found myself having to call it “Self-directed Learning” in my lesson plan!

I’ve watched my 19 month old grandson busy playing, He lines up plastic animals on tables, chairs, or on the floor. I see the organization, imagination and creativity of his young mind, he has discovered the world of free play.  It saddens me to think this may be his “free play” years, because entering preschool or kindergarten it could be non-existent.

Demands On Teachers

With all the demands of literacy, math, and testing put on the teachers it is difficult for them to keep up. Teachers must also have supportive administrators and legislators to understand child-development and know free play is crucial.

After serving as a mentor to several new Kindergarten teachers, it’s my belief some teachers are afraid of free play because of chaos in the classroom, and because classes in education no longer put emphasis on play.  Instead, everything is data driven child development has been lost and forgotten,

Free play with simple management and procedures can be easily adapted into the day without chaos.

Free Play Organization

Free play runs smoothly and efficiently in my classroom, but by no means does it mean free time for me. I am interacting and responding to different situations.

Management and Procedures

  • 30 Minutes of Free Play
  • Designate areas for play
  • The number of children in the area.
  • Clean up and storage of the equipment.

Divide Play Area Activities into 6 Centers

  • Art Center
  • Creative play center
  • Physical fun
  • Manipulatives
  • Games
  • Dramatic Play Area
  • Four or five children play together in one play area a day.

12 Day Rotation

The children go through two rotations of the free play before changing the six activities in each category. That means I have the same free play activities up for 12 days.(Some activities may keep longer if it is specific for a teaching unit, like my dramatic play area. )

Clean up and storage of the equipment
The kiddos clean up their play area and put equipment away.
When I introduce the area I also introduce clean up and storage of equipment.

In my Teachers Pay Teachers store I sell a unit on how I organize my free play in the classroom and suggestions for free play units.  Free play is a part of every single day.

It is impossible to teach the benefits of free play in the classroom, because it can’t be duplicated.   

Our kindergarten kiddos need to return to the days of outdoor play and indoor organized play. It needs to return to the lesson plan and it needs to be supported by teachers and administrators and our legislators.

About The Author

Darice recently retired after 36 years of teaching. She taught kindergarten 29 years. She currently runs her Teachers Pay Teachers store, substitute teaches, is a mentor for current teachers and enjoys time with her grandchildren and family.  Her hobbies include reading, going to the fitness center( she never had time for this before), and watching high school sports(former students).

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