Free Play

Unstructured Play

UDL 5.3

Free Play is a student-initiated exercise in which young learners actively engage in self-selected unstructured play (e.g., dramatic play, blocks, cars, playdough, art) in order to develop social and language skills in an organic and meaningful way. In an early learning environment, the teacher equips the classroom with engaging activities and materials for students to play with and builds in opportunities for Free Play as part of the daily routine. As students are engaged in Free Play, the teacher observes students, assessing their interactions, roles and engagement to identify and support their needs. While Free Play is primarily student-driven, the teacher may occasionally interject to support or challenge learners, using dialogue and probing questions to facilitate critical thinking and assist with problem-solving. Free Play supports children's social-emotional development as students actively explore their environment, thoughtfully interact with peers, make decisions about their play and practice solving problems.

Implementation Tips

Preparing Activities
Plan unstructured centers and activities within the classroom environment that students can access independently to engage in productive, exploratory play. Consider any activities likely to capture students' interests (e.g., dress up play area, blocks, arts and crafts, puppets, puzzles).
Introducing Free Play
Introduce Free Play at the beginning of the school year and integrate Free Play opportunities in the daily schedule. Allow students to self-select their areas of play. If needed, prompt students to rotate to a new, self-selected activity to allow everyone an opportunity to explore diverse centers.
Curating Materials
Incorporate Free Play materials that support students’ fine motor, literacy and language development. For instance, include magnetic blocks in the building area to promote fine motor development. Or, integrate menus and food labels in the dramatic play area to encourage print awareness.
Focusing Free Play
Observe students closely during Free Play to determine when to adjust activities or facilitate more sophisticated play (e.g., To encourage students to work together rather than engaging in parallel play, the teacher says, “I wonder how big your tower would be if you put your buildings together!”).
Practicing Social-Emotional Skills
Encourage development of social-emotional skills by allowing students to practice working together and solving problems prior to intervening. When needed, support students to resolve problems as independently as possible (e.g., “Tell her why you didn’t like it when she took your baby doll.”).
Evolving Free Play Activities
Add new free play activities and modify old ones to increase engagement, motivation and evolution of play throughout the school year. Modify play areas to introduce challenge or target specific skills (e.g., change house area into restaurant, integrating menus to support literacy).
When to Intervene
Monitor students as they actively engage in Free Play, allowing them freedom and independence to make decisions about what and how they play. Intervention is appropriate when students need support regulating themselves, struggle with fine/gross motor tasks or need redirection when off task.


Daily Free Play
During the school day in an early learning environment, the teacher offers daily opportunities for students to engage in Free Play. Each week the teacher prepares the centers, carefully choosing materials that will appeal to students’ interests. Before releasing students to their center of choice, the teacher delivers a quick overview of the available play centers introducing any new additions and also reviews the behavior expectations. Students then self-select the area they wish to play in first. After 10-15 minutes of play time, the teacher signals to students to rotate to another self-selected play area so that all learners are able to explore the different play areas.
Intervening During Free Play
During Free Play, the teacher carefully observes and monitors students’ interactions and engagement to offer support when necessary. The teacher notices that two students are upset because they each want to play with the same toy car. The teacher refrains from immediately jumping in, affording the students the opportunity to practice resolving conflict. As the conflict escalates (e.g., yelling, grabbing), and the students struggle to regulate their emotions, the teacher intervenes. The teacher encourages the students to resolve their conflict through dialogue and offers suggestions for conflict resolution (e.g., "It looks like you both want the same car. What is something we can do when we both want the same thing?").
Focusing Free Play
A preschool teacher has noticed that many students are in the early stages of fine motor development. The teacher has observed students struggling to manipulate small objects such as beads and small blocks and also having difficulty while coloring (e.g., breaking crayons while coloring, difficulty controlling marks). In order to support students in developing fine motor skills, the teacher integrates several targeted activities into the Free Play centers. The teacher includes magnetic blocks and legos in the building area, as well as beads, strings, sequins and perler beads in the art section. While the teacher introduces the new objects to students prior to Free Play students are encouraged to actively play and explore in an unstructured manner, guiding them only when necessary.

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