childrens feet on hammock above grass

There’s no doubt about it – play is essential to children’s mental, physical and social development. In fact, the benefits of play are so great, it’s even been dubbed a fundamental human right. But with family life becoming increasingly frenetic and technology dominating our free time, free play has experienced a steady decline.

Despite us living in one of Mother Nature’s most diverse and fun-filled playgrounds, Aussie kids today spend more than four hours a day in front of one screen or another, and just four hours a week playing outdoors. And between the added distractions of swimming lessons, dance classes, footy training, maths tuition, and a whole host of other academic pursuits, free play has pretty much fallen by the wayside.

It’s a global problem of such scale that a new policy from the American Academy of Paediatrics is calling on GPs to physically prescribe families with time for unstructured playful learning.

But what exactly is there to gain by letting your kids play without purpose?

An edge over the robots

The world’s constantly advancing – and fast. To keep up this momentum, we’re demanding “more innovation and less imitation, more creativity and less conformity,” according to researchers. Luckily, play is a great way for children to stretch their imaginations and take risks – human-centred qualities that will be highly sought-after in the workplaces of the future.

Game-changer: Instead of giving kids building blocks and a picture of something to replicate, see what they can come up with without being shown the end result. Try a similar thing with older kids by providing cooking ingredients, but no recipe.

The Einstein of the future

Surely things like spelling tests or learning a foreign language would be most beneficial for developing children’s linguistic skills? Well, not quite. Research shows children demonstrate their most advanced language skills during play. And the same goes for maths, too. Almost half of free play activities have roots in mathematical learning and help kids grasp core concepts, like counting and identifying number patterns.

Game-changer: Encourage pretend play, like teaching nonsense lessons to stuffed animals or having conversations with imaginary friends.

A break from the terrible twos and teens

For young children, playing games can be the first time they have to abide by social rules. Turn-taking, compromising, managing negative emotions; they’re all part and parcel of interacting with others and essential life skills for the future. For older children, play provides an important outlet for the self-expression and independence pre-teens crave.

Game-changer: A game of marbles or outdoor boules is great for testing kids’ self-restraint (no matter how old they are!). For those approaching high school age, try tactics that support their curriculum: sand and water play for geography lessons or ‘What happens next?’ performances for literature classes.

Goal setting and go-getting

Executive function is the ability to plan, focus, prioritise and multi-task – all the skills we need to set and achieve our goals. And play actually stimulates the areas of the brain that make this possible.

Game-changer: Grab a map of Australia, drop a pin and get the kids to plan how they’d get to the chosen destination. What kinds of things would they need in their survival kit? What pitstops would they make along the way? Can they create a mood board of what they imagine the places would look and feel like?

A chance to improve physical health…

Play inevitably involves some kind of physical movement: a busy day in the imaginary café, an afternoon spent climbing trees, a weekend of fort-building and defending. With days at school spent mostly sitting, this regular physical exertion is important for keeping everything from kids’ hearts to their bones healthy.

Game-changer: Set kids physical challenges that blend cryptic treasure hunting with obstacle course elements. Or get the whole family involved in HBF’s free outdoor Spring Fitness sessions – it’s quality, healthy family time and heaps of fun.

…and mental health, too

We tend to think of kids being carefree. But life pressures like starting a new school, exams or arguments with friends can bring about feelings of stress and anxiety. When this happens, just like adults, kids’ levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) soar. But play has been proven to combat the rise.

Game-changer: Time spent in the great outdoors is an incredible stress reliver for kids (and big kids), so plan in a visit to your nearest national park for a day of adventuring as Wilderness Explorers.