Saving Childhood: Bringing Back Free Play


Once upon a time I had a darling little three year old and I nearly ruined our relationship. I made choices that left no room for her needs and stubbornly decided that because I was a mom I knew best. My child knew what was best, but I ignored her.

It was our first year homeschooling and our curriculum was going to be rigorous. If you cannot see the fault in that intention alone, then let me expand further. My precious 3 year old was going to sit still and listen. Her amazing accomplishments and advancements were going to mean that I was an amazing mom. I had a mission, and she was it.

Do you see my faults now?

I’m sure you have seen this choice played out too. Parents come in carrying or half dragging their children whose faces are red from tears. The kids are exhausted from school using all the self-control they could muster during the day to sit still, make good choices, and try to learn.

But we push them beyond what they want to do or expect more than they can provide. And their tears are telling us all we need to know. If you believe that a rigorous day is healthy for a child, read these definitions. Rigor means unpleasant conditions associated with something. It can also mean rude, stiff, unyielding, and worst of all numbness.

Here is the irony. What we think is good is actually hurting our kids. Our hover parenting, the controlled schedules, enrollment in multiple sports and clubs, and constant commuting only to deal with tears is hurting them. These things are not blessing and nourishing their souls.

Did you know young people today are suffering with major depression and anxiety 5 to 8 times higher than young people a century ago? We’re talking about the young people who went through WWI, WWII, and the unstable times of the 60’s and 70’s. Yet, we are the ones who are struggling more.

Long ago children had the freedom to simply play. They made their own choices, learned from their mistakes, and more importantly they had ownership over the time that was given to them. And through this they still learned because children learn through playing.

Our kids need to play!

Depression and anxiety are directly correlated with the feeling of being out of control. A person who feels in control is less likely to become anxious or depressed. Free play for our children offers them a sense of control that they long for, and so much more! It is human nature to discover and explore.

As parents we have to stop thinking that exposure to a ton of sports, hovering, intervening to correct or scold, being enrolled in clubs, and maintaining a stellar GPA is success. It’s not. The mental health of our children is much more important than any of those things. They just need to be kids! When they are allowed play freely they are automatically directed toward intrinsic goals rather than extrinsic goals.

As adults we delight in time that is completely to ourselves. With that time we gravitate to the things that bring us the most joy. Reading, working out, bible study, people watching on a park bench, etc. Those things bless and nourish our souls. That is exactly what our kids want, too. They want to find the things that bring joy to their souls. Simply through playing they will find joy.

A child who is constantly told to avoid a rock by his parents will never learn to avoid the rock unless he trips over it himself. Then he discovers on his own that the rock is present and its consequences. No amount of repeating, “watch out” will ever teach a lesson as valuable as tripping. Even though he has fallen, and it hurts us to see blood on his knee, you as a parent still did your job by warning him. You were there to recommend a better path. Sometimes he will listen, and other times he will not. Please, don’t ever for a second think that by not preventing the fall you failed. Our children are their own persons, and as such they need freedom to be themselves.

When we allow our children to play without adult-organized events, it is a high form of respect. We’re saying, “I respect you enough to believe you are capable of negotiating relationships by yourself. I respect you enough to believe you are capable of handling disappointment and overcoming boredom without me interfering. I respect you enough to believe you have the intelligence and creativity to direct yourself.” But the opposite corollary is true as well. When we micromanage our children, what we are really saying is, “I don’t believe you are capable of handling this on your own. You need me to fix everything for you.” Founder Kirk Martin

Let your children play, where they can learn to solve their own problems, develop their own interests, and then you can stand back to watch them find their joy. Truth be told, my former three year old would have been fine if all we had done was play, read books, and play some more. That’s what kids need and deserve. We love our childhood memories of playing; they would like the same kind of memories.

It is brave when we stop using our children’s accomplishments to define us, and realize they are their own person. There is something extremely brave when we chose less control in order to gain more through simplicity. Be brave and find joy in a season with less.

Here is where you can begin today:

  1. Look at your schedule and pare down. We go by a strict rule of 1 sport and 1 extracurricular, and depending on how many kids you have that might be too much. A child does not need a sport every season keep them healthy, instead buy a gym membership to work out with them. Then your schedule is no longer dictated by their game/practice schedules. Or get a state park pass and starting hiking. Our children need a relationship with us, and that means we must spend time together.
  2. Mandate during this summer a daily one-hour quiet time. This is time where they are not allowed to ask you to entertain them. They are on their own in a safe place to just play (or scheme if they’re like my children). When you give them back time to play, you also get a break that most of us desperately crave during the day. It’s a win/win. Respect them by giving them large chunks of time to play and be imaginative.
  3. Pray. Our children are precious, and we forget too quickly they are made in His image. The next time you want to manage, control, dictate, pacify, or criticize; remember who gave them to us. Parenting has revealed to me that it’s more important to be changed by your children, rather than change them to be what you weren’t. We can take queues from our children to enjoy life more.
Picture of Chelsea Hezel

Chelsea Hezel

Chelsea is married to her high-school sweetheart, Zach, and they have three kids which they homeschool. She is a graduate of The Master's University in biblical counseling. Currently, she volunteers in her local church as a women's counselor and Bible study teacher. She is passionate about teaching God's Word to her sisters in Christ. Of course, their location is always subject to change due to their military life-style. She loves to travel and explore new adventures. When she isn't busy, you can find working in her yard and jamming out to classic rock.

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