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What is free play?
There are many types of play for children, and they all have their importance. Structured play allows children to learn rules, routines and social skills under the guidance of an adult. Free play, however, is about unstructured playtime where the adult’s role changes to be supportive and led by the child.
This is best described by the charity 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.’
Let’s look at how this helps with a child’s development, and what the role of the adult is in free play…
The role of free play in children’s development
Allowing children time to engage in free play gives them the opportunity to explore their environments and different materials. They can learn to solve problems, and importantly, they can be allowed to learn from mistakes and taking risks. This all helps shape how they interpret the world and how they develop emotionally, socially and cognitively. It will allow them to build resilience and self-confidence.
Getting children outdoors for enough free playtime is important, even more so now with the rise in technology. It was reported in the Ofcom ‘Children and parents: media use and attitudes report 2018’, that children between the ages of 5 to 15 in the UK are spending approximately 4 hours a day on media devices. This leads to children missing out on the opportunity of complex free play that aids development.
Looking to the environment for free play, it is often the case that outdoor spaces are overlooked. Ensuring you have a safe space where children can be allowed to explore physically challenging behaviour is a great way to include free play for your child at home. So how can you set this up?
The role of the adult in free play
The adult is responsible for choosing the play environment, which can be both indoors and outdoors, and for supplying the resources for children to play. The adult can choose materials aimed at developing different skills for children, and from the observation of children playing, will know what interests they have.
An important part of the adult’s role in free play however is remaining passive. Although it's much easier said then done, it's important to remember that risk is an integral part of free play and, as noted by Play England, ‘adult caution and fear reduce children’s opportunities to set themselves challenges and take risks’.
Here is a great short video from the Raising Children Network in Australia setting out how to create a play environment for your child
The importance of allowing your child unscheduled and unstructured time use their imaginations, create their own play experience and take the leading role is important. As noted in the video above, the size of the play space doesn't matter, as long as it's safe, children can create and explore during their free play time.
Additional aspects of free play to consider
Other than allowing children the time for free play and taking on the appropriate passive role of the adult during this time, there are some other considerations to be made.
As with all types of play, free play should be inclusive. Inclusion, as stated by Early Childhood Forum (2003), is described as ‘a process of identifying, understanding and breaking down barriers to participation and belonging’.
During play, problems with inclusion can arise from peer exclusion and from difficulties with access, either through social background, or due to physical and mental disabilities. However, there are ways of reducing these barriers to access free play for disabled children. Environmental challenges can be overcome with spaces designed to allow for easy access. Wider doorways and avoiding the use of stairs will keep an area accessible for everyone.
Balancing free play with other opportunities for learning
Although free play is an important part of development and learning for children, as with all things in life, there are other types of play to balance alongside this. For children to enhance their skills in all areas of development, such as language, and fine and gross motor skills, there are other play types to include.
Find out more about play in this short film featuring national play experts Sue Palmer and Tim Gill
There are so many ways you can incorporate free play into your child's day. Just remember to have a safe environment for them to explore, take a step back from structure and routine, and let them take the lead in doing what they do best...
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1. Play England: Free play in early childhood
2. Ofcom: Children and parents: media use and attitudes report 2018
3. Early Childhood Forum (2003) Quality in Diversity in Early Learning: A Framework for Early Childhood Practitioners (second edition). London: National Children’s Bureau