Part I of this topic explained to parents the idea of free play and its importance for children’s development and learning, including some pointers about brain development.
Part II provides further ideas on this topic and suggestions as to how to provide free play activities.
Young children need free play to develop certain essential skills and dispositions to function as competent, independent and resilient individuals in the real world. According to a study by University College London, parents’ psychological control, such as not allowing children to make their own decisions, “can limit a child’s independence and leave them less able to regulate their own behaviour”. This is an important finding! As children progress through the school system, they need to be independent and reliable. Always telling them what to do, how to play, will not develop independence!
The role of parents
Although free play is spontaneous and may not have a clear purpose, structure or plan, parents can consider the following to help their children benefit the most from it:
- Setting up the environment so that it is safe and age-appropriate.
For example, props for pretend play should not include sharp or fragile objects, such as knives and glassware.
- Provide a wide variety of materials, toys and/or props for your child to choose from, without cluttering the space. The toys and materials provided should be simple and open-ended (e.g. blocks, Lego, cardboard boxes, cloths, etc.) so that your child can use or play with them creatively and flexibly in different ways.
- Offer your child choices. Each option must be equally appealing to them. For a start, limit the choices so that decision-making becomes more manageable. At the same time, children should also learn that there are times when they do not have a choice and need to comply (e.g. safety issues).
- Let your child decide how they want to play. Do not coach or set rules for them. Give them the space and time to figure things out on their own. Intervene only when it is absolutely necessary (e.g. to keep your child safe).
- Knowing your child’s interests and strengths is helpful in providing free play activities that will keep them deeply engaged.
- Be supportive towards your child’s play and encourage their efforts rather than focus on a product or some outcome.
- If feasible, arrange play dates for your child as they get to practise their social skills, emotion and self-regulation when they play with their peers.
Suggestions for free play activities
As mentioned in Part I, there are many kinds of free play that children can engage in, outdoor play, pretend play, block play or other forms of sustained play, and even project work, as long as it is child-initiated and enables children to follow their genuine interests.
Pretend or make-believe play is one form of play that children enjoy and is beneficial to their social, emotional, cognitive and language development (e.g. communication skills, imagination, self-regulation, etc.). In pretend play, children imitate different roles, re-enact elaborate interactions and revisit experiences in their real life. To encourage pretend play, parents may consider the following:
- Make some space in the house available (rearrange some furniture if need be) and allow your child to take over the space for a few days during the school holidays. Let them play in the space over several days or play sessions. Sometimes play with some small figures or props will not take up much room at all. We have seen children on planes, for example, playing in an engaged way with some toy figures.
- If you have space, set up the area with a range of props (e.g. child-sized furniture, dress-up clothes, dolls, toys, tools) and materials. For younger children, real objects or realistic toys are appropriate. For older children, use simple objects as props (e.g. cartons as tables, rulers as knives) and include literacy materials (books and writing materials). Also encourage your child to make their own props.
- If possible, encourage play between friends of your child, for example, two children can engage in dramatic play and take on different roles.
- Leave them to develop the area and their narratives. For a start, children tend to act out familiar roles and stories. As the play develops, children will create their own scenarios and specify rules for the roles.
Constructive play refers to using blocks, Lego, manipulatives, tracks, or materials (e.g. empty cartons, sand, playdough) to build a structure. When children are given extended time to work on building projects, they can continue to revisit and modify their creations, therefore giving them opportunities to explore the materials and different ways of building structures. To promote constructive play, parents may consider the following:
- As with pretend play, provide an available space that your child can use for an extended period of time.
- For young children with emerging fine motor skills, start with blocks that are lightweight (e.g. foam blocks) and of sizes that are easy for them to grasp. As they progress, introduce other types of blocks (e.g. bristle blocks, interlocking blocks, magnetic building sets) for them to play with.
- For older children, provide a range of basic blocks (of various sizes and shapes) in sufficient quantities, so that they can build elaborate structures and experiment with balance, spatial reasoning, patterns and symmetry. Consider table blocks if space or cost is a concern.
- Complement blocks with what are called adjuncts, that is, a small car, a small train, loose parts from other play sets (e.g. tracks, doll’s house furniture) and empty cartons, plastic containers and cardboard tubes for children to integrate these items into their play.
- Provide a variety of open-ended materials (e.g. bottle caps, fabric scraps, straws, string, ice-cream sticks, shells) for children to include in their creations.
- Provide people and animal figures, vehicles and toy tools as accessories to encourage children to merge pretend play with constructive play.
- Encourage your child to share with you or their peers about their creations.
Making handicrafts, drawing and painting also share the same fundamentals as constructive play, that is, allowing children to experiment with materials and to create something on their own. In arts and crafts, children get to focus more on aesthetics and self-expression. The following are some suggestions that children may be interested in:
- Make a book – based on a recent field trip, holiday, your child’s favourite story, self-created story, drawings or information gathered on a topic of interest.
- Make puppets, masks or sculptures using recycled materials (e.g. socks, paper bags, boxes, paper plates, plastic bottles).
- Decorate a T-shirt, dress or bag.
- Draw or paint on mahjong paper to use as wall mural or combine smaller drawings into a collage on the wall.
- Make decorations for an upcoming festival or birthday (e.g. Christmas Day).
For art play, parents may consider the following:
- Provide a diverse supply of art materials for your child (e.g. crayons, paint, colour pencils, markers, glue, tape, scissors, drawing paper, construction paper, crepe paper, mahjong paper, used desktop calendars).
- Provide a wide selection of craft materials (e.g. fabric scraps, string, shells, ribbons, dried leaves and twigs, beads, pom poms, pipe cleaners) for children to decorate their creations.
The opportunities to explore, reason, make decisions and problem solve are aplenty in free play. Children also learn to stay focused, set their own goals and persevere towards achieving their goals. There are times when parents should get involved in supporting their child’s learning or play, but not during free play, as children need to be given time and space to play on their own to foster independent and creative thinking, as well as to develop resilience and confidence.
In the light of the transforming world economy, it is perhaps timely to acknowledge free play as one of the essential pathways to prepare children for the future.
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Copyright © Marjory Ebbeck and Wendy Toh 2017
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any forms or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the Copyright holder.
 University College London. (2015, 4 September). Children of more caring, less controlling parents live happier lives. Retrieved from https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0915/040915-caring-parents-happier-lives
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