Playgrounds and the importance of ‘free play’

Simple trip to favorite playground can mean wonders for child development

Fernando Olvera, 5, pulls a string of yellow caution tape at a playground closed due to the coronavirus pandemic Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in South Central Los Angeles. California's plan to safely reopen its economy will begin to require counties to bring down coronavirus infection rates in disadvantaged communities that have been harder hit by the pandemic. The complex new rules set in place an "equity metric" that will force larger counties to control the spread of the virus in areas where Black, Latino and Pacific Islander groups have suffered a disproportionate share of the cases due to a variety of socioeconomic factors. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) (Jae C. Hong, Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Playgrounds are the ultimate spaces for “free play,” which can be defined as “unstructured, voluntary, child-initiated activity that allows children to develop their imaginations.”

This article first appeared in the “Kidding Around” parenting newsletter -- sign up here:

As many of us know, “free play” is so important to a child’s development, as described in a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP):

“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.”

The AAP report listed the following benefits of free play:

  • Healthy cognitive development
  • Use of creativity and expansion of imagination
  • Interaction with the world around them
  • Development of social skills in learning to share and resolve conflicts
  • Practice in decision-making skills
  • Confidence building

That study was first published in 2007 when pediatricians were concerned that too many kids were missing out on “free play” and instead being forced into rigid schedules.

“Despite the benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children,” the report stated.

In that report, they addressed “a variety of factors that have reduced play, including a hurried lifestyle, changes in family structure, and increased attention to academics and enrichment activities at the expense of recess or free child-centered play.” I am thinking you may have read about this before, but if not, check it out. A lot of it might feel like common sense to you, but it’s interesting to see it actually investigated.

I doubt the authors ever considered what a pandemic could mean for this scenario. What happens when you take all of it away for an extended period of time? What happens when playgrounds and schoolyards are shut down? Obviously, we adapt, and we have, but it’s going to be so great to be able to get these kids back to some “normal” free play environments.

What’s your favorite playground and why? 🤔

As I said in my callout, you might think: Why would I tell more people to go to my favorite spot and then ruin it? Well, that’s a great point, and it’s exactly what I would say!

But as they say, sharing is caring. Many of you already have done so:

“Fort Fraser at 14/Garfield. It has close parking and is very accessible. The way the park is set up, there are areas for kids of all ages. It’s always a struggle trying to convince the kids it’s time to leave.” -- Tim Urbanski

“Pleasant Lake Elementary School has it all. Amazing playscapes, basketball, surrounded by woods, lots of nature. Absolutely beautiful.” -- Shane

“Rotary Park In Livonia. We love the playground, so many different swings, a sand box, tons of room to fly a kite. Super clean. We love going on the nature hike trails also.” -- Amanda Lukas

Scarlet’s Smile Park in Commerce. It’s an all-inclusive, barrier free playground for children of all abilities. Not only is it one of a kind in Michigan, but in the country!” -- Megan Koss

“MacArthur Park in Trenton Michigan -- It’s a nature-based park with logs and boulders for obstacle courses. The butterfly garden is stunning. Plenty of opportunities for unstructured play!” -- Sam

“Blossom Heath Park in St. Clair Shores!!! It’s an awesome family friendly park that features two playscapes one for younger children and one for older children. There’s lots of picnic tables for a lunch or dinner picnic and they have a restroom facility that is always clean.” -- Nancy

“The best one in my town is Gallup Park in Ann Arbor. It is a huge playground that has got things for a variety ages and it’s accessible for kids with disabilities. It is also right on the water, so there are lots of birds and geese around which the kids love. Gallup Park in general has lots to do with all its trails and small boat rentals so you can really spend hours there.” -- Natalia Tejeda

Thank you, everyone, for sharing! If you have something to share, email me (

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About the Author:

Dave Bartkowiak Jr. is the digital managing editor for ClickOnDetroit.