Free Play Shapes Your Child’s Brain (in a good way!)

More and more research is showing that free play is critical to a child’s developing brain. More free play might even help your kid get better grades in school.

Here in the U.S., school curricula tend to separate learning time from play time, but there’s a growing body of research showing that free play might be one of the keys to better academic performance.

Kids learn social skills like fairness and how to take turns on the playground. Those skills are actually better predictors of academic performance than past grades. A kid’s social skills in third grade tell you more about how they’ll perform in the eighth grade classroom than their past grades.

Related: Can a yoga ball help kids learn?

According to an NPR interview with Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, free play shapes those developing brains. It even has the potential to turns genes on and off that impact the neocortex. This is part of the brain that’s important for sleep, memory, and for learning.

That means play might be the component of a child’s day where he processes what he learned in the classroom. At the very least, play seems to enhance the part of the brain that helps him learn and retain information.

U.S. schools have been cutting recess time more and more. Instead, our schools tend to focus on classroom time and “teaching the test.” This emerging body of research seems to imply that this strategy is not serving our kids at all.

Free Play Shapes Your Child's Brain (in a good way!)

Better learning isn’t the only benefit that kids pick up during free play. This is a time that also helps kids foster creativity and resilience. The information kids learn in a classroom can be important, but so is learning how to interact with others and learning to think outside of the box. These are the lessons that you can’t put down on a chalkboard.

Related: Is multitasking hurting your creativity?

The Sudbury Valley School is a good example of learning through play in action. In this unconventional learning environment, kids are part of the decision-making process. They help enforce the rules of the school and shape their days. Instead of a regimented academic calendar, kids engage in free play and play-based learning. Kids also play in mixed age groups, so younger kids learn from watching older kids.

The best part? Sudbury Valley graduates perform well in college and in their careers. This style of learning with an emphasis on free play works. And it helps our kids grow into happy, well-adjusted adults.

So, what’s a parent to do? If your child’s school has cut free play time, you might need to supplement with more playground time after school and on weekends. You can also try to work with school leadership through the PTA to change their free play policies.

What is your child’s school day like? How much emphasis is there on academics vs. free play? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!


Magdalena J.
Past Member 3 years ago

Thank you!

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill3 years ago

We bought a swing set for our 3 year old grandson, he loves it. We take him to the playground at least once while we have him. We have also taken him to the Children's museum a couple of times too. We make sure he has lots of outside time!

Lynn Rubal
Lynn Rubal3 years ago

Kids need to play outside!!!!!

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se3 years ago

So sad it has come to this....., that one need an article to learn.... :-( But on the bright side maybe many need this after years of mainstream media telling what to do or not :-)

Catrin K.
Catrin Schuetz3 years ago

So true !

Fi T.
Past Member 3 years ago

Learning through games is the most effective

Elena T.
Elena Poensgen3 years ago

Thank you :)

Janet B.
Janet B3 years ago


John chapman
John chapman3 years ago

Life gets structured way too soon

Angela J.
Angela B3 years ago

So true...thanks for sharing