A Parent’s Guide to Screen-Free Play

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine
By Jodi Healy

With increasing stimulus and access to technology, it can seem difficult to keep a young mind curious and kindled with items as basic as caps and water.

However, children learn through play, and one of the greatest opportunities we have to keep children busy is through the right types of play. Play is essential to early learning; it is the main way children learn and develop ideas about the world. It helps them build the skills necessary for critical thinking and leadership. It’s how they learn to solve problems, gain confidence in themselves and their abilities, and feel good about their competence and ability to learn.

Types of Play

Free play is a term used by early childhood providers. It means a child is able to play at their leisure and explore in an unstructured way the toys and resources available to them.

Structured play is a predetermined or prescribed activity, such as giving a child a puzzle or craft with a set outcome, for example, making a paper snowman. This art activity would require a child to cut out the body of a snowman and other accessories to complete the look. A sample snowman would be provided to guide the activity. The child is encouraged to do it alone, but there is an expected outcome and use of the materials provided.

Unstructured play occurs when a child is allowed to explore resources and materials, and use or do whatever they feel (in a safe way). For example, giving a child building blocks or a blank piece of paper and finger paint.

The attention span of a young child (through age 5) and the time a child plays or stays focused on an activity can be very short, anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes. There is a major misconception that if a child only plays with something for 5 minutes, he or she is bored, it isn’t challenging enough, or the child isn’t interested in the activity.

This is actually very normal, especially in an open environment and learning-based activities. Children will cycle through play areas often. This is the same in a preschool; time will vary based on a child’s interest and developmental level, but children often play with something for 5 minutes, drop it, go to something else for 10 minutes, then come back to the prior activity again (and so on). This is the nature of free play.

However, always use your judgement. If your child seems bored or has mastered an activity (especially a structured toy/activity), it may be time to upgrade the level of the toy.

Young children also parallel play. They will stand next to another child, but not play with them, instead playing side by side. Young children learn by exploration, discovery, and observing. Only when children are older, between the ages of 6-7, do they start to play together. Older children will play at one thing longer, and play is engaged and more complex.

Two boys who are 4 will stand next to each other in a block area with cars on a mat. Sometimes they will want the other’s car, but they are observing and play independently. Two boys who are 6 will play monster trucks in a monster truck show and crash their cars into each other’s, or work together to build a tower to knock down.

Types of Toys and Equipment

There are many different types of toys, and not all toys are created equal.

The greatest toys have open-ended possibilities and provide years of learning. A child can use his or her imagination, create something, experiment, and every time they use it, they can create something different, or the toy can be used in a variety of ways. Examples include play dough, dress-up clothes, blocks, and musical instruments. Little hands are attracted to something that can be touched and used, or taken apart and put back together over and over again. This also saves a lot of money. You will be amazed at how much time children spend with open-ended toys.

A manipulative is an object that is designed for a child to learn by “manipulation.” These are some of my favorite toys, and many can extend into school age. (You can use this term to search for toys on teaching websites like kaplan.comdiscountschoolsupplies.com, and environments.com.)

The use of manipulatives provides children the opportunity to learn concepts like counting, stacking, sorting and unsorting, matching, construction, patterning, classifying, and comparing. They can also learn about quantitative concepts such as shapes, numbers, and number symbols in a hands-on, fun, and experimental way. Manipulatives, such as texture links, sorting shapes, rings, balls, puzzles, or stacking toys, also develop and enhance fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. (Toy developer Melissa and Doug offer a good selection of manipulatives.)

Other key open-ended toys encourage pretend role-play: action figures, dolls, farm animals and trucks, kitchens, dinosaurs, and dollhouses. Even books stimulate creative thinking because they provide “food for thought” and enliven imaginations.

Other toys that are great to rotate into a child’s play are a workbench with simulated drills and saws, and wood and screws for construction, a peg or light board, or a dual magnet and felt board (one side for magnets, the other for felt board stories).

I always tried to buy open-ended toys that could be used in multiple ways, and over and over again, and more importantly would add to current toys. For example, play money, a cash register, and real calculators were added to the kitchen setup when the children started understanding money was used to pay for goods. They added an entirely new element to playing “store.” The children evolved from simple to complex play, from touching and selecting different fruits to put in a shopping cart to putting price tags on items, and calculating and exchanging money. One Christmas, they each got a package of labels in their stockings.

Infants & Toddlers

* Play kitchen with pretend food

* Stacking cubes

* Baby dolls

* Wooden blocks

* Mr. Potato Head


* Dress-up (superheroes, princesses, pirates)

* Toy trains, cars, and trucks

* Puppets and other story-telling materials

* Role-playing kits (doctor, veterinarian)

* Blocks

* Magnetic letters and numbers

* Interlocking links and cubes

* Felt boards

* Pegs and peg boards

* Matching games


• Fashion dolls

• Action figures

• Make-believe school or house

• Battle/war games

• Lego

• Dominoes

• Card games, board games

Structured toys have a clear beginning, middle, and end. The term refers to toys that can only be put together one way, such as puzzles or nesting blocks. There is generally a rule, or set of rules, and each piece or type of piece plays a clear role in the completion of the activity. The materials themselves often indicate the method of play.

Say a child solves a puzzle or matching game, maybe with a little help at first, but then independently. Not only has the child solved a problem toward master and independence, but he or she is also beginning to memorize concepts, like the letters of “cat” and what a cat looks like, to knowing how to spell the word. These types of toys graduate as a child develops. For example, more difficult puzzles will be needed as a child masters easier ones.

Infants & Toddlers

* Ring stacker

* Stacking cups

* Shape sorter

* Graduated cups

* Inset puzzles

* Puzzles (1-5 large pieces)


* Basic board games (Candyland, Chutes & Ladders)

* Floor puzzles

* Building blocks

* Lacing cards

* Peg boards with a set number of pegs

* Puzzles (10-30+ pieces)


* Pre-designed Lego sets (like Star Wars, Harry Potter)

* Jigsaw puzzles

* Board games for older children

* Model vehicle sets (cars, airplanes)

* Puzzles (30+ pieces)

Toy collections

Establishing collections of the right toys will lead to years of play and learning. People often buy one toy, when a child wants it, instead of creating an “open-ended” collection.

For example, a child expresses interest in “army guys,” so one or a few are purchased. All new toys are played with temporarily because they are new and interesting to explore (the uniforms, the color, the texture, the size, even the packaging). However, if there is only one or two, there is little else to do with them. Yet, if the “army guy” is added to a collection of superheroes, now the child can create their own world (battles and challenges, rescues, or other). If the army guy is added to a collection of army guys, with different colors of guys and trucks with equipment and tools, play becomes much more open-ended and involved.

Creating collections significantly adds to the play experience. Over time we had many different collections, from various sets of houses and people to different types of animals and props (lake animals, bugs, sharks, dinosaurs, sea creatures, other).

* Fisher-Price people, houses, accessories

* Action figures, superheroes

* Service heroes

* Melissa and Doug food sets

* Army guys, Navy guys, Army trucks and accessories, barracks, hills, fences, etc.

* Barbie dolls, doll house, clothes and accessories, house accessories

* Shopkins, Shopkins houses, accessories

* Full-size babies or life-size dolls, clothes and accessories

* Wooden puzzles, floor puzzles, jigsaw puzzles

* Dinosaurs, environmental accessories

* Farm animals, farm equipment, barn, farm house, accessories

* Matchbox cars, garages, monster trucks, monster trucks exhibition set up, accessories

* Sea creatures, types of whales, fish, sharks, other

* Bugs

There are so many options and toy variations. Many are passing mainstream toys that match the most recent character fad, such as Shopkins collections; these change over time. My daughter fell in love with Shopkins, but she would often take out the various playhouses I had and used them to create new scenarios (so they became open-ended).

The brand or type isn’t as relevant as the way it is used and rotated into a day. You may already have some of these toys.

Children get overwhelmed when there is too much stimulus or too many options. A clean space is a blank canvas for a child to create and become the master of his or her environment (even if it looks like they just made a huge mess). New parents figure this out when all the toys end up in a pile on the floor in about 5 minutes. Often, you will see a toddler dump everything out on the floor rather than take one and play with it. Dumping toys out is more fun than playing with them (and this is actually a normal part of development, experimenting with cause and effect).

Putting a few different activities out each day helps a child focus and learn how to play. All toys seem new every time they are rotated in and out! When a child starts to seem bored with an activity, put it away for a few days or weeks. When you take it out again, it will be like new. Storing toys in an easily accessible way makes this process smooth and manageable.

Coming downstairs in the morning and seeing all your toys set up waiting for you is like Christmas morning! I still often surprise my 7- and 9-year-old daughters by staging their dollhouse or my son’s cars in a monster truck show with one of the garages. Hours of play await!

Published Author Jodi D. Healy is a mother of three with more than 20 years’ experience in the field, with a B.A in Psychology and M.Ed. Her recent books, Create a Home of Learning, the Jesse True series, and The Dirt Girl, are available at createahomeoflearning.com.