The importance of free play in early childhood

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I have been spending time visiting preschools and thinking about / talking about preschools…observing schools, debriefing, thinking about the different factors that go into making a preschool a center for good quality early childhood care and education.

One of the factors that i find really really important but seem to see a frighteningly less proportion of is free play. Play is such an integral part of (early) childhood…an organic and experiential learning experience that is by nature tailor made, learner specific, continuous and ongoing…one that places significant agency in the hands of the learner and in all honesty, not so complicated to set up! And yet, there seems to be a significant dearth of free play time in a lot of preschools around us today. (my context for observations is more urban india – specific to larger metros where I have had some opportunity to observe classrooms looking at a range of populations…also, this is just my reaction to the few that i have seen. on no way does this conversation mean that free play does not exist in preschools – but more that i seem to be observing very few instances of it).

Play has been such a pivotal and important part of learning …whether it has been Plato’s observation of young children as unable to be still; in the Republic he recommends replacing enforced learning with lessons in the form of play, or Rousseau in Emile where he stresses the importance of play as a means to develop the senses:
‘Let all the lessons of young children take the form of doing rather than talking, let them learn nothing from books that they can learn from experience’ (Rousseau 1762/1963: 101).

Which takes us to the concept of Free play:
Free play is described by Play England as:
… children choosing what they want to do, how they want to do it and when to stop and try something else. Free play has no external goals set by adults and has no adult imposed
curriculum. Although adults usually provide the space and resources for free play and might be involved, the child takes the lead and the adults respond to cues from the child. (http://www.playengland.org.uk/media/120426/free-play-in-early-childhood.pdf)

Ideally, every preschool classroom should have at least a third of the day set up for free play – thereby providing children the opportunity to engage with each other and materials of their choice, to hone their skills, to practice a task…to assimilate their learning and accommodate new phenomenon into their schemas of understanding. It provides them with space for real, natural conversations, turn taking, understanding and sharing perspectives, working independently, in pairs or groups. It allows them to experiment, to question things and try out theories in a safe manner. It is their quest for learning that they set for themselves. they learn from themselves, the environment and each other, scaffolding each other as they participate in play.

One of the preschools i visited does the free play set up beautifully. I was at By the Sea last week and had a chance to be a fly on the wall for the day (and it was indeed an enriching experience so i was one lucky fly). The first hour was set up for free play. The centers and areas were set up well before the kids came in. Kids walked in, greeted the teachers and put away their bags. Then looking around they slowly (or very quickly) gravitated towards activities of their choice. Here is what was set up for the day:
1. water play – a water play table with inviting purple colored water. There were plastic bottles and cups (all reused/upcycled) to pour, transfer, etc
2. Sand pit with a few sand toys
3. Trikes and scooters
4. Swings (part of infrastructure)
5. Jungle gym for climbing (part of infrastructure)
6. Wooden board with papers and 3 bowls of paint with brushes
7. puzzles
8. blocks
9. A guided art/craft activity
10. Home corner – with hats, coats, dress up clothes, dolls, kitchen toys, baskets, etc.

The place was abuzz and pretty much every single child was engaged in something or the other. There were kids playing by themselves with a dollhouse or in the sandpit, a group of children busy with the home corner with elaborate conversations in progress. Two girls made detailed shopping lists and planned out their day with their “babies” while another boy played at being a ‘policeman’.

Kids whizzed around on their trikes and scooters, while others chose to work on making structures with the large wooden blocks laid out.

It was a busy busy hour but honestly, it was simply incredible to see the amount of learning and processing going on. I could hear the minds whirring, imaginations stretching, scientists testing theories, artists creating and discussing, and children being children and learning in a manner that was like second nature to them.

The teachers were there – around but taking a back seat, allowing the learning to happen as organically as it could. They stepped in when there was a conflict, to model behavior, to help when it was really really required..but this was more about the child and his space and ownership of learning.

Take away the fact that this was a more ‘privileged’ preschool…and look more closely at the philosophy at play. This is something that can be so easily replicated in so many preschools. The materials do not need to be fancy or expensive. The focus needs to be on the child, and he needs to be given the space and materials to truly develop and learn.
Changing larger curriculum structures and bad early childhood education will take time (3 yr olds writing, rote learning and memorization, teaching for school interviews amongst a ton of other things) but maybe play is a good place to start improving the very first exposure our little ones (and future generations) have to formal school!

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About myfourboysandme

Mom - a word that defines me... I smell of oats, johnson's and home baked cookies I am pink, purple, green and orange and so is the floor my kids color on. Flour on my clothes and a brush in my pocket, my glasses bent out of shape and smudged with tiny fingerprints. I can't remember the date but i know almost 40 pictures books by heart. I wake up humming 'wheels on the bus'and i talk with my fingers and eyes and mouth. My bag carries band aids, napkins, wipes, crayons, papers, candy and sometimes my wallet. I know all the parks and very few of the restaurants in my neighborhood. Most of my shopping is diapers, books and paints My phd certificate lies in a roll, the frame now contains an abstract work of art by two year olds and i am prouder of that piece of paper. mom - a word that defines me!

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