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Montreal Families

Why free play is so important

When my daughters were little, they often asked me to take part in their games. Usually, this meant playing the mommy dog while they were the puppies. I would crawl around on all fours, barking and pretending to lick their “fur” while they squealed with laughter. There were variations – sometimes I was the owner and they were the puppies; then my job was to teach them tricks. Sometime we were a pack of wolves running away from an undefined villain, howling at the moon from the top cushions of the sofa.

Yes, what little parental dignity I had went right out the window when we started these games. But it was wonderful to see their minds at work, improvising new scenarios and roles. Of course, there were many times when it was hard or even impossible for me to drop my adult responsibilities to play with them. And I would be a liar if I said that I never used the TV and electronic games to keep my kids occupied and quiet.

But it’s important for parents to know that they need to create the time and space for children’s unstructured free play. According to the experts, play is a major way children develop into competent people. (In fact, it’s so important that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has even listed play as a right for every child.)

“Play is critical,” explains Dr. Stella Benarroch, a child psychologist and director of professional services at Collage Pediatric Therapy in Westmount. “It’s the ‘work’ of children. It’s where they use their imaginations, re-enact things, and practice what they learn in the world.”

Play, she adds, allows them to figure out how things work in the physical world. “A child might wonder, ‘What happens if I stack five blocks, will that hold? What about when I stack 20 of them? They are really being little scientists and trying to figure things out. As much as we can try to explain things to children, there is nothing like experiencing things for themselves.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says play is directly linked to healthy growth, and is a key part of developing imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive and emotional strength. But kids today are spending less time engrossed in unstructured free play and this is something we should all be concerned about.

According to the AAP, the combination of working parents, busy schedules and easy accessibility to portable electronic games (sometimes called “shut up toys”) has put free play at risk. It doesn’t help that many parents are also afraid to let children play outside unsupervised. And there is societal pressure to keep young people occupied with “stimulating and enriching experiences” (extracurricular classes, sports, concerts, etc.) rather than letting them occupy themselves.

However, unlike extra-curricular activities or the heavily contrived fun offered by video games, free play is oriented specifically to the interests and abilities of the children involved. “What I love about unstructured play is that it happens at a natural pace,” Dr. Benarroch says. “It’s real. It follows the rhythm of our brains. The sky’s the limit with this type of play because kids are using their imaginations.”

When kids have free play together, they also get to learn how to get along with others. “Creative play with friends gives everyone the chance to put their two cents in,” she says. “They learn negotiation and social skills. Kids have to learn to work things out on their own.”

Dr. Benarroch encourages parents to create the space and time where free play can occur, which might mean shutting off the electronic gizmos and letting kids sit around bored or do very little for a period of time. Parents should realize that it’s also OK to allow some downtime. “Boredom is OK, “she says. “A slow-paced game of pretend is OK too. We have so much choice these days that kids might not just get the basics – free play in the park or downtime in the basement. We have to make a conscious effort to include time for this kind of fun.”

Facilitating children’s play

Dr. Jane Hewes, chair of MacEwan University’s Early Learning and Child Care program in Alberta, has been studying children and play for many years. She offers these suggestions on how parents can support children’s play:

  • Provide long, uninterrupted periods (45-60 minutes minimum) for spontaneous free play.
  • Provide a sufficient variety of materials to stimulate different kinds of play – blocks and construction toys for cognitive development; sand, mud, water, clay, paint, and other open-ended materials for sensory play; dress-up clothes and props for pretend play; balls, hoops, climbing places, and open space for gross motor play.
  • Encourage outdoor play. Parks and forests provide ample opportunities for creative play.
  • Recognize the value of messy, rough-and-tumble and nonsense play.
  • Allow children to take age-appropriate risks during their play.
  • Ensure that all children have access to play opportunities. Let children play for their own purposes.
  • Take an interest in their play: ask questions, offer suggestions, and eagerly take part as a co-player when invited.

The Galileo Educational Network, a non-profit organization based at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education, has created an Early Learning Page, http://www.galileonetwork.ca/earlylearning, where parents will find many resources and articles focusing on early childhood, including the importance of play. If you click on the section entitled “Research,” you’ll find videos in which Dr. Hewes discusses free play.

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