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Play is foundational to learning and well-being and prepares children for functional participation in various roles and responsibilities later in life. The important role of play in a child’s life is well documented, however, we have seen shifts in play trends over the past few years with the biggest decline in unstructured free play.
There are various contextual factors that have contributed to this, in addition to the use of screens and technology, including: caregiver concerns around crime and safety and less availability and access to safe outdoor play environments, contributing to many children spending more times indoors under adult supervision (not necessarily playing). More dual working families and increased time travelling between schools, activities and places of work. Changes in school curriculums and hours, including for some, longer school days and shortened breaks or recess periods. Parental concerns around academic achievement and their child’s performance in extra murals, often contributing to an increase in structured activities.
When it comes to screens and technology, we need to take a step further and reflect on why it is as pervasive or “easier” or “more accessible” than the alternative of free play within some homes. Does switching the screen off, automatically increase free play? Not always…
Some children are natural players, skilled at independent free play and can shift easily between free play, screens and other home activities and tasks. Other children (and their caregivers), may need more support and guidance to help them to play more independently and become captains of their own play adventures.
Free play requires both the play skills and playfulness of the player/s as well as the support of their surrounding play environment. This play environment includes physical properties, such as space and play prompts, but also time and opportunity to play as well as the support of a caregiver. That doesn’t mean providing them with every play idea or directing their play. I have said it before and I will say it again, providing a child with an exact activity, exact instructions and an exact expected outcome, is not play.
During free play, a child can create, direct and adapt the play activity and play script as they engage in their play adventure. Free play is intrinsically motivated, spontaneous, not limited by a certain set of rules or directives and not necessarily reality bound.
Free play, with minimal adult interference, will provide them with the opportunity to work on various skills including: problem-solving, creative thinking, flexible thinking, initiative and grit, self-regulation skills, working memory, sustained focus, physicality and can provide them with an opportunity to have some quiet time to soothe and calm themselves. Free play with a playmate can further see them developing various socio-emotional skills including self-expression, negotiation, compromise, perspective-taking and empathy.
I often refer to a “yes” space, when it comes to supporting free play as part of my free play tips and strategies. A space that is preferably screen-free and free of distractions that can interrupt the flow of their play (picture turning into Jackie Chan as you attempt to block off sharp corners, save Grandmother’s special vase from falling, lift the cables from the laptop or television before the whole set goes tumbling… all the while holding on to that long-awaited cup of coffee). Probably not the best “yes” space, for you or the kids.
Outdoor play often lends itself for more freedom in play. The adult agenda or approved way to play, namely “that’s not how you play with that…”, seems to be less limiting outdoors, allowing children to create their own play script and play world compared to indoor activities, where expected outcomes or adult quality control often creep in.
The outdoors makes for a great “yes” space with caregiver support, yes this will include some moments of safe risk-taking in play! Breathe and count to five… The opportunity to get fresh air, climb, lift, dig, jump, run and even… “fly”, within reason of course.
Loose parts play outdoors with materials that can be moved, combined, taken apart and redesigned in multiple ways can lead to many wonderful play adventures. Loose play outside can include natural materials such as dirt, rocks, sticks, leaves as well as recycled or bought manipulatives, such as: boxes, pool noodles, ropes, tires, containers, blocks, their dress-up play prompts and so much more.
Loose parts free play supported the right way by a caregiver (again not directing their play with specific ideas) can develop various physical and cognitive skills, while supporting their health and well-being.
With the tough and uncertain circumstances, we are facing as part of the COVID-19 pandemic, I do have a few wishes for little ones that I want to end off with. May your little one play more, as in truly free and wonderful play. May they experience the joy, the laughter and giggles that play adventures can bring, important for well-being. May they move, jump, dig, climb, breathe in the fresh air and spend more time outdoors, if you are fortunate enough to have an outdoor space, stimulating their body and all their senses. May they experience more free play, not less. May you as a caregiver trust in play.
Written by Anandé from PlayMore
Anandé Ferreira, the founder of PlayMore, is a pediatric occupational therapist with a special interest in playfulness and sensory integration.
PlayMore launched an online platform in 2019 where caregivers can learn practical ‘how-to’ tips and strategies on various play and child development topics. The platform functions as a monthly subscription, with new monthly content and is most relevant for caregivers with children between birth to 7 years of age.
Play deprivation can have a negative impact on physical, cognitive and socio-emotional development and it is, therefore, critical to enable caregivers and children with opportunities to play within their context. PlayMore aims to support and empower caregivers with knowledge and strategies to help their children reach their full potential through the magic of play.