Why Free Play in Early Childhood Classrooms?

Jan 18, 2022 9:00:00 AM / by Amber Lappin

Making every moment count is a great value when it comes to children’s ministry. It’s true that many times the only place where children will hear the gospel is when they are at a church meeting or event. We certainly don’t want to waste time.

Unfortunately, the desire to fit everything in sometimes leads to overpacked schedules, overstimulated littles, and overwhelmed adults. Experts agree that all children, but especially those in early childhood, learn far more when they have time to play than they ever do when they are shuffled from one super structured activity to the next. Focus becomes better, engagement goes up, and behavior problems go down when children’s brains are given the gift of choice and the room to explore between highly structured activities.

What’s the difference between free choice time and a free-for-all? Planning. Here are three quick tips to get the most value out of your free choice time:

  1. Plan a good routine: When the day’s schedule allows for kiddos to function in a balance of large group, small group, and free-choice activities, young children are able to learn in a way that is developmentally appropriate. Preschool-aged children should not be expected to sit still in a large group for more than 10 (ish) minutes at a time—and that number goes down for younger children. You can still have several quick group activities; just break them up with nice long stretches of free choices in between.
  2. Plan good choices: Plan at least three options (more for larger groups) for children to choose from. You might put out something quiet (like your craft for the day, or dolls to nurture), something more active (like cars and trucks or a memory verse beanbag toss), and something sensory (like scented playdough or a sand table). Let them rotate on their own instead of strict rotation schedules—studies find children will be able to engage so much better without the pressure of having to move every few minutes.
  3. Plan to engage: Sometimes free choice time can be viewed as a “break” time for the adults in the room—but that’s a mistake! This is the best time for adults to be actively engaged with children. Grown-ups can be looking for the littles who are on their own, who need extra love, who are ready to chat about the lesson of the day. It’s arguably the best opportunity for ministry in the whole day!

Topics: Early Childhood Ministry

Amber Lappin

Written by Amber Lappin

Amber Lappin, M.Ed., is a speaker and writer with three decades of experience in early childhood development and children’s ministry. She works as a professor in the School of Education & Teacher Prep at Riverside City College. Amber enjoys her small farm in Southern California with her husband of 30 years, Jason. They have three adult children and an ever-growing assortment of weirdo animals.


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