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Melissa’s Playbook: The Power of Free Play – and Why I Believe in It

2016-06-20 by Melissa
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We recently partnered with Gallup for a study on parents’ perspectives on childhood play. You can see what we learned here. This blog is part of our “Time to Play” series, with advice and tips on how you can make time for play in your child’s life!

This blog is part of our “Time to Play” series, with advice and tips on how you can make time for play in your child’s life!

“Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests.”

—Peter Gray, Research Professor, Department of Psychology, Boston College

melissa's playbook the power of free play photo block


“Play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity. Nothing fires up the brain like play.”


—Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play



I couldn’t agree more. This quote gets to the heart of our mission and product intention at Melissa & Doug.

I’ve always been a big believer in the power of play and its crucial role in a child’s development. In fact, nurturing play has been a building block (pun intended!) of our company from its earliest days. We try to make products that offer kids multitudes of different ways to play: Toys, crafts, and games that stimulate imaginations and send children on journeys of discovery. We believe toys, in essence, are really just launchpads for expanding the mind and sparking innovative thinking. I love watching how a child will take our toys, say our stainless steel pots and pans, and reimagine them — as a drum set, a flower basket, a ball catcher…


For more than 25 years, I have focused single-mindedly on creating engaging playthings. But in recent years I’ve grown increasingly worried — worried that the awe and wonder of childhood so crucial to a child’s development is disappearing into a sea of performance and evaluation. I’ve realized that today it’s not enough to simply make toys. I can’t sit on the sidelines any longer. I must help to lead a conversation about how we think about childhood and play — especially free play. And in the process share some of my discoveries about how free play can seamlessly fit into our lives.

When I talk about free play, I’m talking about play that’s unstructured. Open-ended. Child-led. Not adult-instructed. Full of joy. It’s the kind of play that makes childhood magical and brain development optimal. And though it often naturally occurs when there’s so-called “downtime” — that doesn’t make it any less important. It’s essential to give kids the time and the freedom to create something from nothing and to follow their curiosity. The problem — I’m sure you can relate — is there’s so little downtime in our families’ busy lives these days, so these moments are few.

As a mother of six children and a toymaker, I struggle with these issues every day. I know how important it is to inject free play into my kids’ lives, but also how easy it is to succumb to scheduling structured activities and going down the path of least resistance. But I have opted to fight for play, and in doing so have developed ideas and strategies to make it a bigger part of our children’s lives. For me, this means taking active control and actually engaging with my kids to keep childhood alive. I’m hoping you’ll join me. I’m convinced that as a society it’s time for us to…


Take Back Childhood


It’s time to take back childhood from the overscheduling, from the overbearing emphasis on achievement, from the tendency to turn to technology and media at the drop of an “I’m bored.” And, look, I get it. My family is pulled in a hundred different directions each day. I’m definitely talking to myself here as much as I am to you all out there. Activities, achievement, and technology aren’t necessarily the enemies. All things in moderation, right? But it’s essential that we bring play — free play — back into the mix.


The Free Play Way


To Take Back Childhood, I’m convinced we need to focus on free play. Here’s why:

  1. It builds brains. The positive impact of unstructured play on cognitive, behavioral, social, and emotional development is something I’ve witnessed firsthand, but if you want to check out the hard science, see this report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  2. It reveals passions. It’s through playful exploration that kids discover interests, passions, and talents. We want our kids to be happy and, ideally, building a career when they grow up that’s true to their core selves. Figuring out who they truly are and what they love to do begins with play.
  3. It promotes creativity. Given time and space and removed from distractions, kids gravitate to creativity and creative thinking. When they are able to let their minds and bodies roam, they can come up with imaginative solutions to problems. This kind of creative problem-solving is what will produce the disruptive innovators of tomorrow.
  4. It makes connections. Playful interactions — with friends and grownups alike – help kids navigate social terrain, negotiate terms, define norms, develop empathy, and so much more.
  5. It provides a safe space for trial…and error. The great thing about play is that the stakes are low. There’s no state-mandated test — no right and wrong. Kids have the freedom to try out their ideas, test them, and try again if they fail. In short, it builds resilience. And grit.


3 Free Play Ideas



  1. Plan for Play. The play isn’t planned, but the time is. Set aside time each and every day (night) for unstructured, anything-goes, free play. Put it on your calendar just like you’d pencil in soccer practice.
  1. Let Kids Lead. You can be part of your child’s unstructured play or step back. It’s up to you, but remember to think about guiding and facilitating, not directing or dictating. Sometimes kids just need a gentle nudge in a playful direction.
  1. Keep It Free. The best thing about free play is that, in most cases, depending on your child’s interests, no materials (or very few) are required. The best play truly begins with nothing but imagination. That’s when kids put their own twists on whatever happens to exist in their environment. And we’ve all witnessed that magic happen with even a simple cardboard box.

This post is the first in a series I plan to write about free play and how I’ve learned to champion it for my family. I’ve been fortunate to collect hundreds of play-related ideas and tips over the years from my own experience and from friends, colleagues, and people like you. I look forward to passing them along and would love to hear your ideas as well. If only my passion for free play is contagious and perhaps inspires you and your kids to become a “free play family”! Then, together, we can make childhood a time to remember. I’d love to hear from you on how your family is making room for play. You can share your images and thoughts with us on social media: #TakeBackChildhood.

C’mon, we can do this! Let’s play!


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Click here to print your copy of 5 Reasons to Focus on Free Play!


You can also read more about our mission here.



As a co-founder and chief creative officer of a toy company committed to championing open-ended, healthy play and as a mother of six who had two children in her 20s, two in her 30s, and two in her 40s, Melissa has had a front-row seat to the dramatic changes in the way kids play and experience childhood. She is dedicated to speaking out about the crisis our children face due to the rise of technology and other societal factors and providing solutions to help families find time for child-led play and exploration.

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