Free play predicts self-regulation years later: longitudinal evidence from a large Australian sample of toddlers and preschoolers

Yeshe Colliver*, Judith E. Brown, Linda J. Harrison, Peter Humburg

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)
154 Downloads (Pure)


Self-regulation skills are foundational to successful participation in society, and predict a suite of positive outcomes throughout life. It has long been asserted that free (i.e., unstructured) play is important for the development of self-regulation, but studies investigating play and self-regulation have faced empirical limitations. The current study used a large sample (n = 2213) from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children to investigate time spent in unstructured quiet and active play activities at ages 2–3 and 4–5 years as a predictor of self-regulation abilities 2 years later. Children's play was reported by parents who completed a 24-hour time-use diary for 1 random weekend day and 1 weekday. Self-regulation was indexed at ages 4–5 and 6–7 by parent-, teacher- and observer-reported items comparable to similar large, longitudinal studies. Results showed that the more time children spent in unstructured quiet play in the toddler and preschool years, the better their self-regulation abilities at ages 4–5 and 6–7 years, even after controlling for earlier self-regulation abilities and other known predictors. Further, between 1 and 5 hours of preschoolers’ unstructured active play time significantly predicted self-regulation 2 years later. This study provides early support for parenting programs designed to increase opportunities for children to spend time in unstructured, free play in the early years.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)148-161
Number of pages14
JournalEarly Childhood Research Quarterly
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2022

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2022. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • young children's play
  • free play
  • self-regulation
  • time-use diary
  • longitudinal study of Australian Children
  • toddlerhood
  • Longitudinal Study of Australian Children


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