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Why “Free Play” Is Great For Your Kid’s Brain

Lots of activities are good for your kid’s brain: music lessons, board games, learning a second language, puzzles, and personal brain training.

But unstructured play has taken a back seat in our ever-busy, high-tech world. Remember hide-and-seek, dress-up, restaurant, bike rides, roller skating, building snowmen and making up dance routines? That’s “unstructured.” (And fun!)

And here’s some good news: several studies have shown that this type of activity is beneficial not only for physical health and emotional maturity (think sharing, compromise, dealing with disappointment), but also cognitive skills.

In one recent study from the University of Colorado, psychologists studied the play habits of 70 six-year-olds. They kept track of how much time the kids spent doing spontaneous activities (in other words, not structured or organized by an adult), like imaginative play and self-selected reading. They also kept track of how much time the kids spent in “structured” activities (organized and supervised by adults), such as homework, community service, sports practice or music lessons. The results?

  • The kids who spent more time in “free play” had more highly developed self-directed executive function.
  • The kids who engaged in more structured activities had less self-directed control.

Why is this important? For starters, when asked to rank the most vital skill for school readiness, kindergarten teachers said “self-regulation.” Early self-regulation levels are also linked to academic achievement later. This high level of executive function helps kids stay focused and independent in the classroom and when doing homework.

When kids get to make their own decisions about what they’ll play, who they’ll be, where they’ll stand in the hierarchy of bullies, bosses and shy kids, they build self-confidence. They learn other important skills, like problem-solving, making decisions based on consequences, calculating risk, creative thinking, visual processing (reading treasure maps) and auditory processing (“Simon Says”), among others.

This isn’t to say you’re doing your child a disservice by enrolling them in soccer camp or an art workshop. Just don’t aim to fill every moment of every day with a planned activity. They’ll have plenty of structure when school starts up in the fall. For now, let summer be about fun. Don’t try to dictate the play time, but if you happen to be invited to join in on the roller skating dance routine, lace up!

LearningRx specializes in one-on-one brain training. We train cognitive skills through game-like exercises that are both fun and challenging—and we do it with a unique personal trainer approach. LearningRx’s customer satisfaction speaks for itself with an average rating of 9.5 out of 10. With 80 centers across the country, LearningRx is a pioneer in the one-on-one brain training industry. Learn more at