One lazy Sunday morning, a little curious about the sudden dip in noise levels in the house, I went looking for my then six-year-old twin boys. I found them in their bedroom with the curtains drawn, making shadow puppets with the thin sliver of light coming in from the window. They played for a while, trying to make different shadow animals using their hands. The adult in me was thrilled at how productively they were occupying themselves and immediately, sat down to explain the concept of light and shadows to them. Though they absorbed what I had to say, my need to participate and provide structure to their play changed the way in which they were playing. Their interest began to wane and thankfully for them, I was called away for some domestic task and they happily went back to their imaginative play.
As I reflected on this incident, I realised the difference between our parents’ generation and ours. As children, we were told to study or play. As long as basic safety rules and boundaries were clearly defined, we were sent off to play on our own. Figuring out which game to play, the rules of the game, who we played with was left to us. Our entertainment was not our parents’ responsibility. Very few of us learnt to play sports through classes. We learnt to play football, badminton and even chess while playing with friends and family.
Today, our increasing necessity to provide structure to our children’s lives leads us to schedule every hour of the day. In most cases, children lead busier lives than the adults around them. Any activity or skill to be learnt is outsourced to a third party. We even have classes that teach children how to play with blocks. Our need to make sure that our child is not left behind ensures that we enroll them for every class available. If our child is not fluent in Chinese, an expert at skating, swimming, chess, badminton and football, a trained actor who can play the piano and is proficient at Vedic maths and ballet, we feel like we have failed her and are not fulfilling our role as a parent. In the process, our children are losing out on free or unstructured play.
What is free play? Free play is the process of play where children have a choice on what they would like to play, how they want to play and when they want to stop and try something else. Free play does not include passive play like sitting in front of a television or a video game. Children can either play by themselves or with other children without adult intervention. Of course, this doesn’t mean that safety boundaries aren’t put in place, especially if they are playing outdoors. Adult supervision is always necessary.
Why is free play so important? Free play allows children to develop their creativity and imagination. Children are naturally prone to play. If adults don’t rush to entertain the children when bored, they will find creative solutions to entertaining themselves. A child playing with dolls or blocks will almost always indulge in a bit of role playing. Drawing, painting, creating things with craft material or even playing catch are all forms of free play.
Free play encourages children to observe and explore the world around them. If they need to find a hiding place, they will look at their room, strategise and evaluate which is the best possible location. It develops their rational thinking and problem solving skills.
It develops conversational ability as children use the time to discuss ideas and differing points of view. Simple discussions like what each of them eats at mealtimes teaches them to identify and accept the differences and similarities in culture and backgrounds within their peer group. It broadens their worldview beyond what they are exposed to by their family.
It teaches them teamwork and builds their social skills. When playing in a group, they learn to negotiate, resolve conflicts, share and work together as a team. When organising play dates, if we keep them occupied with activities throughout the play date, we aren’t giving them an opportunity to build these essential life skills. Invite fewer kids over and let them decide how and what they play. It helps build decision-making skills. When playing with other children, they learn to introspect on what motivates them. They learn to navigate peer pressure and make decisions that are in their favour.
Free play supports the all-round physical development of a child. When children are running around playing catch or hide and seek in the building compound, they are developing different parts of their body. Our screen obsessed children need more natural physical play.
Free play often reinforces classroom learning. Children tend to apply what they learn in the classroom while playing at home. A child learning about primary and secondary colours in school is more likely to experiment with paints while creating his own artistic masterpiece at home.
Children need to be given time and space to develop and grow. Childhood should be kept as free and unstructured as possible, allowing children to daydream, introspect, explore and make sense of the world around them. Without free play, we would have no artists, creators or inventors. Take a good look at your child’s routine and see if he has enough time to daydream, be bored and to come up with creative solutions to entertain himself. Small changes in his daily routine will make a difference to him and just maybe, to the world we live in.