The Power of Free Play  

Written by Meghan Gattginolo, Visitor Services Manager

“Let’s play” are two words that ruled my childhood, and maybe yours too. Time, technology and misplaced priorities have changed many kids’ experiences of childhood. Free, unstructured playtime has been in decline for a long time. Shuttling kids to myriad activities such as karate, soccer, ballet and extra tutoring has been the hallmark of responsible parenting. Even during pandemic shutdowns, unstructured playtime was not guaranteed; in this age of technology, screens and online entertainment have become the default free-time activity in many households.   

What is Unstructured Free Play? 

When we say “unstructured free play,” what do we mean? Michael Patte, Ph.D. defines unstructured play as “a set of activities that children dream up on their own without adult intervention.” He goes on to explain how children are able to come up with their own rules and limits in play of this kind, and that it allows boredom to be the driving “vehicle for children to create their own happiness.” This is the antithesis to what many parents believe – the need to expose children to many different disciplines and experiences to grow their brains while they are still very young.   

Children playing at Explorers Landing in the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center

What the Scientists Say 

Scientists are united on the fact that free play during childhood is essential for a growing and developing brain. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Play is not frivolous; it enhances brain structure and promotes executive function, which allows us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.” Based on current academic knowledge and studies, pediatricians maintain that play is a powerful tool for children to develop a variety of skills to help them into their future adult lives. The ability to deal with toxic stress is one of these skills. Stress interferes with a wide range of brain functions, including executive functions and the ability to retain learned information. Scientists assert that free play benefits emotional and basic development, and that kids retain more information and learn more when involved in playful experiences. This lends more weight to the belief that it is important to make learning fun. 

Children playing at Explorers Landing in the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center

Child at Dunbar Cave State Park
Courtesy of Visit Clarksville

Where You Can Play 

Clarksville and Montgomery County boast plenty of parks and playgrounds, safe places where kids can run, jump and climb freely. Check out Clarksville’s Parks and Recreation website, as well as Montgomery County’s, to find a park near you.   

The Customs House Museum & Cultural Center has long served our local community by supplying hands-on exhibit areas with many free play opportunities. Curator of Education Sue Lewis, who has worked at the Museum since 1989 and is a former teacher, maintains a teaching philosophy that revolves around making space for a child’s imagination. Sue oversees the Museum’s hands-on areas and designs programs along with Education Associate, Pat Purnell.   

Sue was also the driving force behind the renovation of Explorers Landing. Thanks to funding from the Kiwanis Club of Clarksville and the Clarksville-Montgomery County Community Health Foundation, the Museum was able to reimagine our most popular hands-on learning and play area, which reopened to the public earlier this year. Sue worked closely with Curator of Collections Anna Woten to add educational and historical material to the fun exhibits for kids of all ages.   

The Museum is open Tuesdays – Saturdays from 10 am – 5 pm and Sundays from 1-5 pm. Explorers Landing and the Family Art Studio close at 4:30 pm every day.  

Meghan Gattignolo

Meghan Gattignolo is the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center’s Visitor Services Manager and regularly contributes articles to the Museum’s blog. From a military family, Meghan has spent most of her life in Clarksville. She loves learning about Clarksville’s history and writing. Meghan holds a B.A. in History from Austin Peay State University, with minors in German and Political Science. She lives in Clarksville with her husband and two daughters. 

Becky Wood, Technical Writer, edits each blog post. Maegan Collins, Marketing Communications Manager, prepares photographs and visual images as well as prepares the blog posts for the web.

Back to Blog