6 tips for learning through free play
Kym Gibson of the Creators Educational Trust, shares six tips for bringing back free play.
One of my favourite childhood memories is building huts in the living room. We would drag old woollen blankets out of the hall cupboard and hang them between dining room chairs and Mum’s rickety, old ironing board (which also doubled as my supermarket check-out counter occasionally!).
Little did I know at the time that this form of imaginative play was developing my coordination, cooperation and problem-solving abilities. Now, as a mother and through my work at Creators Educational Trust, I know about the importance of free play to children’s development.
Providing and creating opportunities for free, unstructured play is much more than children having fun. It’s a way our kids develop communication strategies, create a plan and execute it, discover and invent things, express thoughts and listen to ideas… kind of sounds like a day at work doesn’t it?!
Our children are naturally curious beings – full of knowledge and potential – and so wonderfully interested in exploring the world and connecting with people around them. Child-led, free play – where the child has choices and can follow their own lead to learn, discover and explore – is an integral part of their learning. Be there in a supporting role, but let them take the lead.
Try out these simple ideas to encourage your child in free play:
1. Dress up Play
Dressing up is more than just pretending to be a doctor or pretending to be a fireman. When your pre-schooler dons a stethoscope and takes their ever-willing patient’s temperature, it’s their way of transforming, making sense and experiencing the world around them. Dress ups don’t need to be costly, kids are naturally creative when it comes to dressing up so let them take the lead, you’ll be amazed what they can create! Try filling up an old travel bag with scarves, gloves, ties, hats and other bits and pieces like wallets, purses and old cellphones and keys. Opportunity shops are also a treasure trove for affordable transformative dress up pieces, let them choose some pieces to add to your collection. It’s inspiring to see how your child can use a few items of dress up, and a stick or found-items, to create an imaginary world.
2. Nature Play
Whether walking in the park, climbing a tree or planting a vege patch being outdoors has a positive effect on our children’s wellbeing. The good news is that nature play can be as close as your own backyard, and it’s a learning environment perfect for children of all ages. Go on nature walks. Pick up leaves and look at the texture, or squat down with your kids and look for insects. Let your toddler jump in the muddy puddles! Focus on the senses. Walk barefoot in the grass with your toddler and take a moment to notice the sound of the birds, and talk together about what you can hear. Let your baby crawl on the soft green grass and tickle their toes with a dandelion clock. For pre-schoolers and older children, plant a herb garden or vege seedlings together – nothing beats a child’s sense of achievement from growing food themselves (sweet green peas, cherry tomatoes and strawberries are always good ones to start with). Connecting with nature is scientifically shown to improve emotional wellbeing – and it’s a free resource. As the weather warms up, it’s a good idea to think of play-based activities you can do together outdoors.
3. Water Play
Water play is more than just splashing around. As a kid I’m sure you’ll remember those hot summer days spent running through the garden sprinkler with the neighbourhood kids screaming with excitement as the freezing water splashed against your warm skin! Those childhood memories are powerful, not just because they were serious fun but also because as you were dodging the water and running through the sprays you were strengthening your gross motor skills, building self-confidence and deepening your sensory experiences. Water play allows children to relax and release their feelings – whether they’re zooming through a sprinkler or sitting at a water trough pouring, swirling, swooshing and squirting. As the weather warms up, think about setting up some water play (supervised of course, especially with wee ones). Plastic measuring cups and funnels, and squirty toys, can add to the fun in the paddling pool this summer!
4. Messy Play
I love this quote by educator Margaret McMillan, uttered almost 100 years ago: "the best classroom and the richest cupboard is roofed only by the sky". At Creators our young kids are big fans of outdoor mud kitchens, and with good reason: they are fun, messy and offer hours of opportunities for imaginative play. Mud, grass, stones and twigs combined together with old kitchen utensils and pots and pans are soon concocted into the best herbal milkshakes, petal soup, chocolate mud pies and dandelion pancakes. Playing with natural materials is a sensory activity, which stimulates creativity and helps connect children with nature. A mud kitchen also offers a rich learning environment, especially for our over three-year-olds, who enjoy role play. To set up your own mud kitchen at home, collect old spoons, muffin tins, pots and pans you no longer wish to use (ensure they safe, with no sharp edges or loose handles). Find an area outside where you can set up your mud kitchen - an old wooden crate and some bricks can serve as an oven – it doesn’t need to be flash. Bring on the mud pies!
5. Old School Play
Remember the endless summer days of hopscotch, double Dutch skipping, knucklebones and last but not least elastics! I say let’s bring them back! They are easy affordable ways for our older kids to not only experience cooperation, coordination and negotiation through play but they’re also timeless gems from our past where we can joyfully share stories about what play was like when we were kids. At Creators we’ve launched a campaign called #bringbackplay and we are encouraging parents (and grandparents and teachers!) to share their ideas about fun and play.
And last but not least…
6. Embrace boredom!
Too often as parents we become the answer to our child’s boredom offering up solution after solution as to what they could fill their days with. Boredom is often the precursor to creativity – let your child feel the space and time then watch them creatively fill it themselves. You’ll be amazed at what a genius your child is. It may mean celebrating the hut built in the middle of your living room for a weekend but trust me, what your child has discovered in building that palace is life changing! As inventor Albert Einstein so wisely put it, “play is the highest form of research”.
Creators Educational Trust, a not-for-profit organisation, has approximately 900 children and 110 staff on its books, at its four early childhood centres and through its nationwide home-based ECE programme, Creators@Home.
Creators has a holistic, child-centre philosophy founded on four pillars: love and connection, nature play, values-based learning and the Reggio Emilia approach. Children at Creators are encouraged to enjoy the outdoors and learn in nature, and often engage in nature walks and nature-inspired play.
For more information about Creators Educational Trust please see www.creators.org.nz