Whenever I ask a group of adults to share a favorite play experience from their childhood there is a visible shift in their bodies. They become energized and I swear I see each of them as their little kid selves. Sharing treasured memories, we easily re-live those moments:

Legs pumping away at swings
Racing through forests
Leaves smacking faces
Screaming away monsters
Dragging off the perfect pile of fort lumber
The smell of wet soil, rain, worms
Dress up plays with the silly cousins.

Each story is about how these once children–now parents–reveled in daily, freely chosen, open-ended play with no helicoptering adults anywhere in sight!

Every day after school we played and played until dark. We struggled together, figured out how to get along and took care of each other. We fantasized and played out our fears. We played to make sense of the world and our place in it.

How did your child spend her after-school hours this week?
Today’s world is quite different from the past decades of our childhoods. Most neighborhoods are quiet in the afternoons. Kickball games in the street, riding bikes and games of hide and seek are rare. Instead kids are shuttled to activities or sit safely behind doors in front of a screen or hours of homework. No time, places or friends for fort building…

We can’t, and for many reasons don’t want to, return to the world of our childhoods. But how do we ensure that our children experience the opportunities for free play that parents and experts agree are crucial for their health, social and intellectual development, creativity and plain old stress-relieving fun? And how can families give their children the same kinds of experiences and freedom they treasured as kids within their comfort zone of safety?

Our own parents just shooed us out the front door, but today’s parents need to strategize, making a conscious effort to carve out the time, place and companions needed for child-led imaginative play to evolve.

It’s easier than you would think and great for the budget!

Use these ideas as a jumping off place for your own:


  • Limit structured activities (music lessons, dance, tutoring, organized sports) to one or two per week.
  • Balance each hour of screen time with an hour of unstructured play preferably outside.
  • Commit to a daily green hour.
  • Plan weekend family nature adventures


  • Backyards and friend’s houses
  • Rough-edged nature spaces and parks. Some communities, like this initiative in Cincinnati, are even creating special Nature PlayScapes with children in mind.
  • The beach, canals and streams
  • Fields, meadows and empty sports fields


  • Looking for a new home?  Search out neighborhoods where kids are outside playing in the cul-de-sacs and riding bikes together. They do exist!
  • Build your own “neighborhood” by nurturing close connections with other families to create safe groups that meet on a regular basis. Both children and adults will learn and grow together over the years.
  • Here’s a mom who found a way for her son to build forts with a like-minded group of boys.

What are your strategies to ensure free play every day for your kids?

© Susan Caruso and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012
Photo © Haidor Truu and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012