Free Play Can Be A Powerful Source of Learning Growth

Looking for free play ideas?  Ask yourself, which is more fun for children—a fancy piece of play equipment or a big cardboard box?

In New Zealand, play is part of the official preschool curriculum, and children often find themselves playing with objects that are repurposed or taken from nature. We asked New Zealand educators for their tips on bringing more free play into the lives of preschoolers.


Photo: University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ

Photo: University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ

For preschoolers at the Early Childhood Learning Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand, there’s no beginning or end to free play—it’s how they spend most of their time.

The University of Canterbury’s childcare and early learning education center is founded on the concept of free play, also known as free-choice play, child-directed play or unstructured play. Manager Cassandra Yeo says children are given the freedom to explore their environment in a calm and peaceful manner.

“Our children are engaged in free choice play for most of the day, so a child could be playing for much of the morning or afternoon until we transition for meals. Even then, if there is a construction happening — such as a car park made from planks — it will be left alone for children to return to,” says Cassandra.  “Free play allows children to imagine, explore and experiment. They dare to ask questions, try different things and ask for help.”

New Zealand educators have an international reputation for using free play to support children’s learning.

Associate Professor Rachael Taylor, from the University of Otago in Dunedin, led a two-year study of 900 children to monitor the impact of developing inexpensive environments that encouraged free play.

While results from the PLAY study are still being compiled, teachers involved in the study say their children were more active, had improved behavior and were better able to concentrate in class than they had been before the study began.

Photo: University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ
Photo: University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ


While the study was based in schools, Rachael says it’s important that free play is encouraged in preschools.

“Play is how children learn. For younger children, play boosts their imagination, creativity and enthusiasm for life,” she says.

Dr Scott Duncan, Associate Director of the Human Potential Centre at the Auckland University of Technology, says evidence is emerging that free rather than structured play can increase resilience, self-confidence, socialization and physical coordination. He promotes the importance of free play through his Twitter account: @DrScottDuncan.

Here are our educators’ top free play ideas that help learning:

1. Be supportive rather than directive

Cassandra believes teachers should avoid falling into the traditional role of ‘directing’ and ‘structuring’ preschoolers’ play.

“Teachers must trust that children are curious and keen, and will make their own discoveries if supported and given the time and space to do so,” she says.

Cassandra suggests supporting free free play by observing, promoting new/different ideas and giving children confidence in their ability to solve problems and work with others.

2. Save your pennies

Rachael Taylor says the most popular objects used for play in the PLAY study were cheap or free. “Children often prefer play materials that they can be creative with to bright shiny plastic toys,” she says.

“A large cardboard box will be a spaceship one day and a boat the next, while a tree trunk sliced into rounds will become stepping stones that children can pretend they’re using to escape from sharks.”

Scott suggests asking the local community to donate unwanted goods that can be repurposed, such as lumber, tires, ropes, carpet squares or tarpaulins.


3. Don’t mind the mess

Parents sometimes think free play looks messy, says Scott. But while parents may prefer the look of a pre-made piece of play equipment, children appreciate the “blue-sky potential” of an ordinary object that imagination can turn into something different every day.

If you’re planning to include water or mud into free play, families may need to be asked to provide a change of clothes each day.

4. Use resources from the natural world

Photo: University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ  Photo: University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ

New Zealand’s Ministry of Education suggests displaying natural materials such as stones, bark, leaves, flowers, feathers or shells on a child-sized table. The items should be safe to hold, non-poisonous and larger than two inches.

You can bring nature into your preschool by supplying pot plants, a worm farm, an aquarium, or a vegetable or herb garden.

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation also gives tips on connecting preschoolers with nature.

5. Keep it dynamic

Free play, says Scott, should be ongoing and ever-changing. The choice of play materials and how they’re set up should change from day to day.

“A free play environment is more dynamic than a structured play environment. The more dynamic it can be, the more it will foster creativity,” he says.

6. Communicate with parents

Scott emphasizes the importance of involving parents in discussions about plans to introduce more free play into a preschool.

“Parents are often very supportive because they remember the freedom they had to play when they were young,” he says.

Cassandra and her teaching team ask for feedback from parents through children’s learning journals. They often find children’s play at the center is carried over to the activities they choose to do with their families.

In a collection of ideas for play, New Zealand’s Ministry of Education says encouraging preschoolers to become effective learners involves allowing them to decide what they want to learn and giving them the time, space and support to explore and experiment. “Providing an environment that offers interesting play materials and opportunities to try new things is a good starting point.”


  1. tristan

    I love this idea! Unstructured play most of the day allows children to learn how to make their own choices and to expand their creativity and imagination. The tips you suggested are very helpful and i wish more places would incorporate this type of learning into their schedules.
    Thanks for you post!

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