Why it’s important for children to have enough free play at a young age?

During my 20 years of international school administration, one of the changes I have noticed is the move by both schools and parents to reduce free play time for children and replace it with more academic activities. This is best demonstrated by the increasing obsession of parents to fill children’s free time out of school with structured activities. When I refer to free play, I am referring to play that is self-controlled and self-directed.

It is interesting that the OECD, Microsoft’s Partnership for Learning and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills have all found the business world is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit employees skilled in critical thinking, critical problem solving and collaborative teamwork. These organizations clearly identify the key skills of collaboration, knowledge construction, problem solving, innovation, self-regulation and communication as essential for the 21st century work place. While at the same time neuroscientists, psychologists and anthropologists are identifying the importance that free play has on brain structure in the early years of life and how this enhances the development of these much needed qualities.

As teachers of Early Years have always known, how a child learns to play in the sandpit informs how they choose to communicate and collaborate as they grow older. In free play when young children are with their peers, the resultant environment influences the development
of social competence, strengthens social bonds, builds emotional maturity, develops thinking and reasoning skills and assists with physical health. Young children learn from each other how to share, how to engage in reciprocal interactions, to take the needs and desires of others into account, and to manage their own impulses. When deprived of the opportunities provided through free play these characteristics do not develop as effectively.

Researchers and psychologists have discovered that between the ages of three and five, children should develop the capacity to self-regulate. This is regarded as a critical part of brain development in what scientists call “executive functioning.” This will later have a huge impact on learning outcomes and employability. What they discovered at the University of Colorado is there is a strong correlation between free play and executive functioning that further correlates closely with success at school and in life in general.

Learning to Control Fear
At the University of Lethbridge in Canada, research has shown connections between neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which plays a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, are changed through free play. Thus leading researchers to conclude that free play is vital for building pro-social brains – social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways and help prepare us for life. These findings are further supported by US government longitudinal research demonstrating robust contributions of early pro-social behavior to children’s developmental success in academic and social domains. They found pro-social interaction developed in play has a strong, positive impact on later academic achievement and social preferences.

It also appears from these studies that free play is a means of teaching children they are not helpless. In play away from adults, children do have control and can practice asserting it. In free play children learn to make decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules and get along with others as equals. In his book Resilience in Children and Teens, Kenneth Ginsburg from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia clearly identifies the importance of play as an integral part of building resilience. He explains when children play they make mistakes and have to learn from them to avoid the same outcome repeating itself. From his observations and studies he has found play enables young children to create multiple scenarios and outcomes and deal with unexpected variables not the same as in the traditional school environment. Ginsburg has shown play is vital for normal cognitive, social and emotional development. Play helps reduce stress and increases well-being. He has also shown the absence of play leads to maladaptive behavior which helps explain the positive correlation existing between increased anxiety and depression in school age children and the decline in time allowed for free play.

Play is also a means by which children learn to control fear. You may have noticed that when allowed to do so, young children naturally test themselves by climbing, jumping and rough and tumbling because the slight risks involved are outweighed by the gains. Through such activities children are teaching themselves about levels of fear they can tolerate without panicking. They are learning to control their bodies in the face of fear, an ability that may one day save their lives.

At MIT they have discovered a clear correlation between play, innovation and creativity. Qualities such as idealism, experimentation and wonder – are vital ingredients for innovation – have been shown to develop early in our lives through free play, which is all about exploring the possible. In modern times of rapid change, exploring the possible is an essential skill. Free play allows children to develop the flexibility needed to adapt to changing circumstances and environment; an ability that comes in handy when life becomes unpredictable as an adult. To be comfortable with uncertainty, one must remain fluid, receptive and creative and the best way to have developed these qualities is through play.

Unfortunately for a plethora of reasons, both real and imagined, children today are given far less time or opportunity to engage in free play at both home and school. Children are rarely given the freedom to direct their own activities, leading to a persistent rise in children feeling that they have no control over their lives, which as noted earlier is bringing problems later in childhood. As Peter Gray discusses in his TED Talk, “the most important skills children must learn in order to live happy, productive, moral lives are skills which cannot be taught. They are skills learned and practiced by children through play.”

Adrian watts is the Deputy Headmaster and Director of Academic Studies at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC).