Since time immemorial, childhood is synonymous with play. Play is the simplest yet richest joy of childhood and should be the main work of children. Children’s need for play is as important as their need for food. Play is so important for the development of children that Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have the right to relax and play, and to participate in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities
What is play?
Patrick Bateson, Emeritus Professor of Ethology at the University of Cambridge in England, defines play as any activity that is not “serious” or “work”. Play can be structured and supervised or unstructured, “free” play. In organised and supervised play, children play according to a plan or structure created by well-meaning adults. In unstructured play, children spontaneously and independently create their own games and ways to engage themselves. While both types of play are important for children’s development, free play promotes many higher-order skills in children.
Unfortunately, many adults are of the opinion that free play is a waste of time. Nothing can be further from the truth. Free play promotes the holistic or all-round development of children by contributing to their physical, cognitive, social, language, and emotional development. However, the rat race of academics and the belief that children do better when kept busy in various classes leaves children with almost no opportunity to free play.
Why free play?
Free play, either alone or with others, first and foremost stimulates children’s creativity. When children invent games, create rules, or find new ways of playing with toys and materials, they engage in creative thinking. It teaches children to build and navigate interpersonal relationships using social skills and to manage their emotions, solve problems, and resolve conflicts. When children have to interact with others and put their thoughts, ideas, and emotions into words, they also build their language and communication skills. In addition, children learn, subconsciously, lessons in care, compassion, and empathy when they or their peers get injured. They learn both cooperation and leadership skills when playing in groups as they go about independently drawing up rules and regulations, making decisions, negotiating, and resolving conflicts. They learn about fairness and justice as they decide among themselves the penalties for breaking rules and the rewards for following them.
Unguided, free play also encourages the natural inclination of children to challenge themselves in different situations. It encourages children to explore and experiment - with materials, situations, and peers - and rewards them with a sense of satisfaction and a boost in their confidence when they independently overcome various challenges and tricky situations they encounter while playing.
Free play provides a healthy outlet for children to release their pent-up stress and anxiety. Believe it or not, young children can be anxious. Relentless school routines, the pressures of homework, multiple classes, and extracurricular activities, and the drive to compete with peers stresses children out making them irritable, anxious, and fretful. Free play helps children relax and genuinely enjoy what they are doing.
And of course, free play encourages children to move around and burn calories, which is essential to maintain age-appropriate weight. As a plus, it weans children away from television and gadgets, refreshes and stimulates their minds and promotes concentration and attention. In the last two decades or so, the amount of time children spend in free play has drastically diminished. This is due, in large part, to the preponderance of the television and electronic gadgets. Interestingly, researchers have found a correlation between television viewing, the amount of time children engage in outdoor free play, and a country’s economic status (Singer, Singer, D’Agostino and DeLong, 2009). The correlations are represented in the chart below. The more developed a country, the more people recognize the significance of free play and hence, the more time children of that country spend in free play.
Television viewing and Outdoor Play by Countries’ Economic Status Graph and information on the correlation between television viewing, free play, and countries’ economic status taken from "Children’s Pastimes and Play in Sixteen Nations: Is Free Play Declining?" published in the American Journal of Play (2009)
What Can Children Free Play With?
So, what can children free play with? Any material that is open-ended i.e. does not have predetermined or fixed uses. Open-ended materials allow children to decide how to use them and to do so in a variety of ways. The more open-ended and thoughtfully designed the learning materials, the greater the benefits to young children. Materials found in nature such as sand, water, leaves, and pebbles are one example of open-ended materials. Art materials and blocks of different types are another. Materials with appealing colours and varied textures stimulate children’s senses and provide positive sensorial experiences.
Interacting with and handling a variety of materials promotes eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills as children use the muscles of their fingers and hands and strengthen their grip. This also helps prepare their hands for writing.
Albert Einstein is believed to have said, “Play is the highest form of research.” With its long-lasting and profound effects on children, play is pretty serious business. So, get up and go play!