Creating Successful Free Play Time for Kids with ADHD

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

All kids need time each week to engage in creative play outside of their structured extracurricular activities. It’s during this time that kids develop important social skills, problem solving strategies, and independence while fueling their imagination and creativity. Even just 20 minutes a day during the week coupled with a few longer stretches of time on weekends can make a big difference. For many parents of kids with ADHD, who often rely on highly structured activities to help manage ADHD symptoms, however, the idea of allowing time for play without rules, structure, or adult supervision can seem intimidating. Ideas of free play quickly spiral into visions of a “free for all” filled with impulsive behavior and complaints about boredom! Fortunately, with a little planning and a modest amount of structure and support it is possible to create successful free play opportunities for even the most active kids with ADHD.

 Choose a strategic location. Have your child play where you can see them. Simply having an adult present in your child’s line of sight helps kids with ADHD stay safe and engaged. So, avoid sending your child off to his or her bedroom or playroom alone. Instead, have your child bring a few toys and activities to a common room in the house. Just make sure you leave time for clean-up when free play is over!

Have creative play toys and activities available that your child finds interesting. Kids with ADHD often need a high level of stimulation in order to stay engaged. Every kid is different when it comes to the toys and activities that they find interesting, so work with your child to find creative options that will hold his or her attention for at least 10 minutes, if not longer. Make sure these activities are largely mess free (steer clear of paint and glue!), and can be done independently without close adult supervision.

Limit the options. This may seem counterintuitive, but giving kids with ADHD fewer options during free play will actually help them be more engaged. Many kids with ADHD will become overwhelmed if they are presented with too many choices, and some will even meltdown. So, present a few free play options, about 3 at a time, and change them out regularly to keep things interesting.

Use a Timer. Some of the biggest free play conflicts happen when it’s time to transition to the next activity. It’s natural for kids to want to continue to play when they’re having a good time, so use a timer to make the transition easier on everyone. Have the child set the timer at the start of free play. Give a warning when there are 5 minutes left, and let your child know that free play ends when the time goes off. By having your child set the timer, you’re helping him or her take ownership of the process, so that the narrative can change from “My parents are making me stop playing! to “My timer went off so free play time is over.”  

Post a list of Free Play Rules. Having basic ground rules for free play provides necessary structure for your child without interfering with his or her creativity and imaginative play. Create a list of just 3 or 4 basic rules and post them someplace where they are visible to your child. At the start of free play, read through this list with your child and let him or her know that free play will need to end early if he or she needs to be reminded to follow the rules more than three times (the number of reminders can be tailored to your child’s level). The best rules are those that cover a wide variety of behaviors and tell kids what to do rather than what not to do. For example, rules like, “start cleaning up when the free play timer rings,” “stay in your play area,” “show good sportsmanship when playing with others,” and “use your inside voice,” encourage a wide range of positive behaviors.

Catch Your Child Being Good! When your child shows positive behaviors during free play, make sure to let him or her know that you have noticed! Praise the good behaviors as they happen, or at the end of free play if you want to avoid interrupting his or her play. Your child will feel proud of the fact that he or she was able to play well independently, and will be more likely to demonstrate these positive behaviors again.

Free play is important for all kids, so help your child carve out time each day to play creatively outside the structure of typical extracurricular activities. Shorter free play times may work better for many kids with ADHD, so start small. With a little structure and planning your child can be engaged, content, and creative during free play time.



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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