How To Use Free Playtime In Your Child’s Schedule

How To Use Free Playtime In Your Child’s Schedule. What free playtime looks like by age and examples of how to use it in real life.

How To Use Free Playtime In Your Child's Schedule. What free playtime looks like by age and examples of how to use it in real life.

I use free playtime basically as something to turn to at my convenience. For us, free playtime can often move around in our day, though it tends to typically fall at a certain time of day. For my children, free playtime happens when mommy needs to get something important done. This usually is dinner.

Because my children have regular nap(s) and regular independent playtime, I can do my “chores” and hobbies around the house during these times. I can clean, I can weed. I can write articles for my blog. I can answer your questions :). I can sew, scrapbook, read, and make jewelry. I can exercise. I can do the things that interest me and the things I need to get done during these regular, scheduled times.

Read more about Independent Playtime here: How To Get Your Child to Happily Play Alone

Dinner time, however, falls at at time when there are no naps and no independent play going on. I use this slot for free time. Free play is great for helping establish creatvity and imaginative play.

Read more about how to manage dinner prep time here: Managing Dinner Prep Time

For the Pre-toddler

Babywise II talks about free playtime for your pretoddler (page 79). This is not a time for baby to roam the house looking for fun. It is a time you tell your child to play with certain items at what BW II refers to as a playcenter. A child’s “job” in life right now is really all about play. It is how they learn.

In the pretoddler months, keep toys simple for free playtime. It can be blocks, balls, books, etc. Be sure they are toys that are age appropriate so your child doesn’t get frustrated in either direction (too easy or too hard).

For the Toddler

Toddlerwise talks about free playtime for your toddler (page 49). This is when your child has the freedom to choose what he wants to play with. You carve out the time slot, but he decides what he wants to play with. You don’t let him jump from toy to toy. Let him learn to have an attention span.

Toddlers can do a variety of things for free playtime. They can play outside (remember to supervise), play with toys, puzzles, read books, color, etc.

For the Preschooler

Preschoolwise talks about free playtime for your preschooler (97). Free playtime is a time your prechooler chooses the activity. You choose when free playtime happens, but your preschooler decides what to play with.

Preschoolers can also do a variety of things for free playtime. They can play outside (remember to supervise), play with toys, puzzles, read books, color, etc.


No matter the age of your child, be sure he is involved in cleaning up. For the 12 month old, 99% of the toys are going to be cleaned up by mom. Sometimes it might move down to 95% (depending on how many toys are out), but don’t expect a huge help. Not because your child isn’t trying, but because he just isn’t as fast as you are. As your child gets older, you can require more. For example, for Brayden who is now 3 years old, he is required to clean up all of his trucks after playtime all by himself. I then help with the rest of the toys. He does the trucks alone before I start to help at all. Some days he cleans up all of his toys by himself when he is done. For free playtime, fewer toys will be out and you might be able to require your child to clean up all of the toys. Teach your child that playtime is not over until the toys are cleaned up. Make sure you calculate cleaning time into your schedule.

We have always cleaned up with Brayden, and he is an excellent helper. He never forgets to clean up when he is done. Kaitlyn, 15 months, is also a good helper. I say, “Time to clean up!” and I then sing a clean up song. Everyone does their part.

My Examples

Here are some examples from my house for free playtime.

How To Use Free Playtime In Your Child's Schedule. What free playtime looks like by age and examples of how to use it in real life.
  • Kitchen. In the kitchen, I have a couple of Leapfrog toys on the fridge. One is the barn and one is the alphabet (incidentally, I love Leapfrog, and no, I have no affiliation). My kids both love these things. I also have magnetic letters and numbers. This is my kitchen “station.” Some children might also find it interesting to play with pots and pans and spoons. The pre-toddler often finds various kitchen items fun, and the preschooler can do imaginative play.
  • Family Room. In the family room, we have a large closet. This closet contains games, puzzles, and art supplies, among other things. We have puzzles that are age appropriate for both children. We have a Karaoke machine the kids often enjoy. We keep our library books in there. We have a tote full of various toys they can play with. Sometimes for Brayden free playtime can be playing Mario Kart in the family room.
  • Master Bedroom. I have a small tote with a few toys. These are just about too young for Kaitlyn (and definitely too young for Brayden, he doesn’t have free play in there).
  • Outside. We have a fully fenced in backyard. In that yard there is a fully fenced in playground area with a swingset, gravel, and sandbox (if you are wondering why it is fenced in, it is because of one of our dogs who is a lab and prone to destroying things with her teeth). The kitchen is also by the backyard so when I am in the kitchen, the kids can be out there and I can hear everything they say. The outside is actually rarely used for free playtime–we use it more for sibling and family time (though you can have sibling free playtime where they have free playtime together).

Those are my typical free playtime activities. You might be wondering about length. There is no definite number given in any of the books. You want it to be long enough learning can happen. The sample schedules in Toddlerwise and Preschoolwise show free playtime as lasting for 30 minutes at a time. For some children, free playtime can happen more than once in a day. Our free playtime in our house is usually around 20 minutes, though it can be as short as 15 minuets or as long as 30 minutes.
Remember to let your schedule serve you. Let free playtime serve your family and the needs of everyone in it.

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Reader Comments/Thank Yous:

  • Don & Denise Sullivan said…
    Thanks for clarifying this! I was wondering about how it worked and I can see what I’m doing right and not so right. haha.
    August 12, 2008 1:18 PM
    Plowmanators said…
    You are welcome Denise!
    August 12, 2008 2:36 PM

Reader Questions:

  • bradysmom said…
    My LO is 6.5 months, and maybe this will make more sense when he is older, but I don’t understand the difference between independent play time; free play time; and blanket time. Can you clarify? THank you!
    August 13, 2008 6:24 AM
    Plowmanators said…
    Bradysmom, I will do a post on that. But Independent play is alone, whereas free playtime can be in the presence of others or even with others (like siblings). Blanket time and free playtime could feasibly be combined. The differences do grow more as they get older because at 6.5 months, they don’t really choose what to play with, which is a part of free playtime.
    August 13, 2008 8:27 PM
  • The Traveling Turtle said…
    I think I have the same clarification question, bradysmom. I have a 5 1/2 month old and we typically let her play in her excersaucer or on her activity mat for about 10 – 15 minutes every night while we get her dinner and our own dinner ready. I have done this with her from the get go though – always given her time that she plays when I am not in the room. Even if it is just to be in the swing or watch her mobile. Is that considered independent play time? I am guessing she can’t really have free play time right now since she can only roll over and sit up – it makes her somewhat limited in the things she can really do on her own.
    August 13, 2008 7:06 AM
    Plowmanators said…
    Traveling Turtle,If she is alone, I would count that as independent playtime. See the independent playtime post for more on that. I outline acceptable mediums. Independent Playtime.
    August 13, 2008 8:29 PM
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9 thoughts on “How To Use Free Playtime In Your Child’s Schedule”

  1. I'm having a hard time with free play because while I have pots and pans in the kitchen-or the leapfrog refrigerator magnets or other things in each room for him to play with, how do I keep him in the room.I would love to do free play while I make dinner, but he never stays in the kitchen with me and it becomes a roam all over the house game while I try and get food ready to eat.I've tried closing all bedroom doors and by doing that I can see him whether he is in the hallway, dinning room or living room, but I think the lesson/point is still lost on him focusing. Usually he gets upset and hugs my leg crying. Do I get a play yard and use that for freeplay and the pack n play for independent playtime. He is 13 months old as of June 1st 09

  2. Lorri,I don't think I would have him do free play unsupervised until he is well-practiced and you know he will obey your voice. By unsupervised I don't mean you aren't watching him, but I mean you are distracted and unable to follow through well with voice commands. Work on free play at times you can focus on it and have him do something different while you get dinner ready. It would be a good time for some sort of structured playtime like coloring or reading books in his high chair.

  3. Okay, so I get this straight….. Independent play is alone (like Roomtime or playpen), free play is in presence of others with choices, structured play is doing a specific activity that I give her (like coloring, blocks, book basket, etc.). I am trying to keep it all straight. Is roomtime / playpen time like free play only by themselves or is it like structured play by themselves? Do I give her the activity to do or can she choose her toys to play with during these times? And how does blanket time fit in? Is that like free play but with boundaries or is it structured play with boundaries? Not that it really matters all the nitty gritty details, because we seem to have a pretty good system going, but I was just curious.

  4. I am wondering if you can help me. I have a 19 month old boy who is very active. How do I teach him to focus on playing with one or two toys and not roaming around the house playing with everything and anything.

  5. I am wondering the same thing as mom2008. My little girl who used to be very content playing with one toy for a long time (when she couldnt' move all over yet) has suddenly become one who roams all over and never really PLAYS with anything, just flits from one thing to the next. How do you teach them to focus on one or two things? Also, I have left a few comments on other pages over a month ago but never seem to get a response. I know you are busy answering all these comments (bless you!) but I was just hoping I am posting correctly and that you are getting them.

  6. Morgan Joy, I am sorry! It seems I am not notified of your comments.You seem to have it straight. Free play can be alone, it is just something your child chose. So it can be alone or with someone.Structured play and independent play are similar. Mom chooses the time, place, and activity with independent play being alone. Blanket time would be structured play. You could do free play there, too. just don't try to turn it into independent play.

  7. mom2008, you will have to start small. Give him something to do and somewhere to do it. Set a timer for five minutes and tell him he needs to play at that activity until the timer goes off. Once he can do that, increase the time slowly. Be sure he knows the timer, not his whining or crying, decides when he is done. If he leaves it, just keep putting him back in over and over and over…:)

  8. Morgan, the same applies to you. I would suggest you leave questions on the day's current post since that post gets several comments typically. Just tell me you read X article so I don't send you to that article again 🙂 I don't think you are doing anything wrong…blogger seems to do this to some people.


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