We all know that Play is important for children’s social, emotional and physical development. Play is a way for children to learn and practice skills in a less formal way and has a powerful effect on their cognitive development. It gives them the opportunity to make connections between all their experiences. It is also the place where learning is consolidated.
We can feel pressure to get our children learning all the time. We buy ‘teaching and learning’ games to enhance their learning through play. And whilst these are good, free play is also a way to help children learn. They can learn without it being through a structured activity or a learning device. And furthermore, free play promotes a sense of autonomy.
We must all remember at some point in our lives when we were so engrossed in an activity we lost track of time and were just in the moment. Well, when children are in free-flow play, that’s exactly how it is for them.
A flow state is an experience that creates increased focus and intense engagement, heightened motivation and immersion, and reception to information. Wow! Sounds like all the things you want your child to have when you present those maths tasks doesn’t it?
When a child is totally immersed in play it leaves them with a sense of fulfilment and gives them the opportunity to try out what they know and to practise new skills and ideas. Free play can be a celebration of all that they are and all they are coming to be.
At this time when families are trying to engage their children in homeschooling, there is the opportunity to make some of their learning fun and natural. For example, after you have had a structured teaching time, follow this with free-playtime. Your child then has the opportunity to process these new concepts and ideas, practice, explore them and own them as their own. And you can have a cuppa whilst they do.
Free-flow play is a way for learning to be consolidated without it feeling difficult or stressful. Tina Bruce, a leading expert on early childhood development, suggests this kind of play opportunity aids development. Free play also Encourages your child’s imagination. Albert Einstein said, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ Open-ended, free-flow play gives imagination the freedom to grow.
How to create a free flow play space
You might be wondering why I am talking about setting this up. Isn’t it just letting the kids get on with it? Well it kind of is, but you also need to create the right conditions. The setting you create will allow the children themselves to direct what they do, how they do it and what they use. And don’t worry about getting it wrong – there isn’t only one way of doing this. As you want your children to experiment, this is a time for you to do so to.
So what can you do?
- Give them designated time to get involved in open-ended play
- Give your child Play-breaks throughout the day with time away from screens and no organised learning
- If you have outside space, give over an area in which they can dig, forage and create a world of their own
- Have a sandpit with a range of materials that aren’t typical sand toys like shells, stones, sticks, and of course, water
- Gather a ‘dress up’ box of materials that are non-standard dressing up things. With a fairy costume, your child can only be a fairy, but if you give pieces of fabric, she could be anything her imagination suggests. So gather a few old hats, handbags, fabric pieces and shoes
- A box of materials such as sand, dough, clay, corks, empty plastic pots, rice, dried pasta will set off much creativity
- Try not to be worried about mess-making. When you set up a free play area that’s inside, put down a plastic mat, and have a bowl of water to wash hands in close by
- Give your child a boundary if you have messy play indoors. “Here is your play space…you can do almost anything want here…if there’s something you can’t do I’ll let you know…and the play stays on the mat.”
- Resist telling your child how to play with an item. And don’t try to solve their problems. If they ask for help, rather than jump in and help (unless it’s a safety issue of course), say something like “What can you do with that? This is your free playtime. You can do whatever you like with it.” Or “You’re asking me to help out…maybe not sure if you can do it yourself…but I know you can sort this.”
- If a child has not played in this way before, he might feel unsure of what he is doing and find it hard to just get stuck in. So be prepared to reflect these feelings. “Not sure what to do…there’s no right or wrong way to play. Just do it your way.”
- Let your imagination run wild and think of creative free play opportunities as you can
When you watch children playing in this way, it is amazing because children think differently to us and we are surprised by the way they find solutions to problems we could never imagine. And seeing them really immersed in what they are doing is a joy in itself. Now go and create that free play opportunity. Then get yourself that cup of tea!