All Play Isn’t Created Equal: Free Play vs. Free for All

The Differences Between Free Play and Free for All Play

As you learn more about play, you’ll quickly realize play is very difficult to pigeonhole and we all have different interpretations of what play looks like.  Many adults are familiar with structured or organized play, where the play is guided by an adult to provide the children with some direction.

However, children need free play for their emotional health, their physical well-being, their social skills, their intellectual capacity, and so much more.

However, free play shouldn’t be confused with free for all play.  In reality, these two types of play are quite different, and knowing the differences will help you provide your child with the free play opportunities he or she needs to learn and grow.

What is free play?

Free play is generally self-directed, though there can be opportunities for adults to intervene if it’s needed. In free play, the participants are fully engaged and they have choices – they can come and go as they please, they can walk away for a moment alone, and as a result the atmosphere is relatively quiet.

It’s the same in humans and in dogs, too.


At Doglando all of our dogs have opportunities for free play, but they also have freedom to lie down, go for a swim in the lagoon, and so much more. This space for free-roaming is a purposeful part of the environment, and there are tons of benefits to having this space:

  • Because the dogs are able to choose how and when they engage in play, you will not hear the rowdy barking that is so common at other facilities.
  • Because the dogs have the freedom to remove themselves from interactions, by taking breaks when they need them most, they aren’t stressed out.
  • Because the environment is full of self-chosen opportunity for play, Doglando dogs are comfortable with new experiences and stimuli.

Believe it or not, it’s the same with kids. In free play, children can choose when to play, how to play, and what to play. They personally direct the play by choosing the rules and guidelines, and play is it’s own reward (meaning there’s no external goal driving the children to play).

What is free for all play?

Now, let’s take a look at a free for all play situation.

In essence, in a free for all play environment, the environment is not meeting the needs of the player. I like to use the example of a traditional doggy daycare, where the dogs run amok and the environment is loud and stressful. Dogs can’t walk away for a quiet moment alone, and they’re so often kept cooped up inside and away from nature, with artificial flooring and no fresh air.

As a result, you will notice behaviors like rushing at the gate when a new dog comes in, barking, and general chaos.

In this sort of environment, the players (child or canine) have fewer choices available. They can not choose how they play, what they play, and with whom they play.

The importance of facilitating play

In recent years, we have become increasingly aware of the importance of play for children.

Forest kindergartens, outdoor classrooms, and nature based play programs are growing in popularity across the world. We’ll even be offering 1-week TimberNook nature play camps in 2017 at the Doglando campus. 

These incredible and diverse environments offer so much to provoke learning and play in children, but they’re also challenging for teachers and practitioners. Facilitators are perplexed, and often exhausted, because they spend so much time diffusing fights and other exchanges of violent language (and behavior) amongst children.

Suddenly, a wide open space becomes a battleground, not a playground.

As adult facilitators, we play crucially significant roles in creating a free play experience or a free for all experience.

We need to lay down the ground rules for any behaviors that are unacceptable and intolerable, and children thrive when:

  • Feedback is clear
  • Feedback is prompt
  • Then, the opportunity to resume play is given to them

They will revise their own behaviors to do what they need to continue playing the game.

How to avoid free for all play environments

During play, children, like dogs, are extremely aware of their surroundings. They’re far more watchful than we give them credit for. They’re also learning about us and our involvement.  

There are two approaches to managing behavior that seem to be commonly used across classrooms, and even at home: sitting still or being in time out. Neither of these behavioral choices offer learning. In fact, “sitting still” is very much working against their biology, which tells them to move.

Keep in mind that learning by consequences should not have to come from the use of punishment. There are far more effective ways to avoid free for all play environments:

  • Make sure the children (learners) are prepared for how to play. You can’t just throw them into an environment and expect play to be the output. They might get there eventually, but they’ll get there faster if they’re behaviorally prepared.
  • Offer the learners numerous ways to be engaged and involved… and not just with each other. They also need opportunities to play alone.
  • Create opportunities for learners to make behavioral choices that lead to favorable outcomes for participation.
  • It is absolutely okay to engage learners through playful interactions with adult facilitators to help create excitement and interest.

In fact, I think this last point is one of the most controversial thoughts out there. And, it’s a hindrance to the kids. If an adult does not step up to be known as the adult, then kids (like dogs), have no problem claiming that position.

The benefits of free play

Now that you know the difference between free play and free for all play, let’s take a deeper look at some of the benefits of free play.

Free play is a great source of exercise that also allows kids to learn their physical limits and what they’re particularly good at. Your child might learn that they love to run fast, or that the tumbling skills in gymnastics are a great source of fun.

Free play also aids in cognitive and intellectual development. Children can learn how to solve problems and how to be creative, and those skills will be useful throughout their lives.

Children develop social skills during free play, too. They learn how to interact with peers who have different personalities, strengths, and skills. Sharing is another skill that can develop naturally through free play – it’s not a skill we necessarily have to teach our children if they’re given the opportunity to learn it on their own, when it’s developmentally appropriate for them.


Free play can also have a “danger” component, like when a child swings as high as they can or when climbing a tree. As adults, it can be truly terrifying to watch our children engage in the type of play that we think could lead to injury. However, it’s also important to remember that children need this type of play for a number of reasons, especially emotionally:

“Mother Nature has designed our children to play in all these “dangerous” ways because she knows that such play teaches them not just the physical skills they need for dealing with emergencies, but also the emotional skills they need.  In such play, children dose themselves with just the level of fear that they can tolerate, a level just below the threshold of what might cause them to freeze up.  In this way, they learn how to manage fear, how to prevent it from incapacitating them.  They learn that fear is normal and healthy, something they can control and overcome through their own efforts.  It is practice such as this that allows them to grow up able to manage fear rather than succumb to it.” – Dr. Peter Gray

Children need different types of play opportunities

Free play is just one variety of play, and it’s certainly not the only type of play that your child should participate in.

Structured play, academic-based learning, organized sports, and other activities all have their place in a child’s development. In our next play post, we’ll talk about the benefits of structured play and how you can best give your child those opportunities.

Have you seen the benefits of free play for your child (or your dog!)? Have you ever seen them under stress in a free for all play environment? Other readers would love to hear your stories, so let’s share together!