Why free play is just as important to me as online learning

When schools closed in Ontario in January, my kids and I suddenly had to navigate online learning at home. It’s been a challenge, but their teachers have been phenomenal in their dedication. My older children, who are in Grades 4 and 5, have adapted well. But with my youngest child, online learning has been a struggle.

Doing Grade 1 completely online is tough. Six-year-olds aren’t used to sitting and navigating a computer all day long, and at the end of each school day, she and I both feel emotionally drained.

We’ve tried being flexible. My little one can do her schoolwork when it works for her. Sometimes it’s first thing in the morning, other times in the afternoon when the day is almost done. We also make sure she takes breaks. We’ve relaxed our rules on how much reading she’s doing at night before bed. We’ve even tried headphones to keep her focused and not worrying about how much schoolwork she accomplishes each day. But no matter what we do or how we try to pivot, my daughter doesn’t enjoy learning this way.

At this point we’re all exhausted. We need some kind of a change. 

Like most parents, I want to help my kids, but I don’t want to solve everything for them, and I’m confident I’m not alone. In this article that discusses seven ways adults can help children cope with adversity and retain a hopeful outlook during the pandemic, I was most struck by the first example: Leverage their interests.

It seems so straightforward, but I almost forgot how simple it can actually be. I think my children may have momentarily forgotten this, too. When the school day is over, they need a bit of a nudge to get outside, but once they get out, their entire mood changes. My six-year-old’s face lights up. She naturally gets creative. They all love it—and I love the benefits they reap.


Related read:  18 ways to get kids to go outside


In the summer, I had no other choice but to let my kids enjoy unstructured play for hours. There were no summer camps and no activities. They had the gift of free time, and I had to work, so they were told to go outside and enjoy the weather. My youngest spent hours in our backyard with a few toys, sometimes with her sisters and sometimes alone, just playing.

For some reason, I had forgotten that they can still do this after school in the middle of winter. Now, after a long day of doing their best with what we’ve been given, they head outside for a break. 

Sometimes, it’s as simple as a walk around the neighbourhood. Sometimes, we get lucky and it’s just snowed, giving them ample opportunities to play. Sometimes they need more encouragement than others, but at the end of the day, they’re getting what they need.


Related read: How to overcome 5 common roadblocks that get in the way of winter play


This is a tough time for kids. It’s tough on parents and teachers as well. Everyone is trying their hardest, hoping for the best. I feel like there’s not a lot I can control right now. But while school is 100% important to me and my family, I’ve realized that giving my kids the freedom to play outside every day is just as important.

After all, as a parent, there’s nothing quite like seeing my kids come back inside with rosy cheeks and eyes shining. Their bodies are exhausted, but their minds are at ease.

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