What is Free Play?
Free Play used to be a part of the childhood experience, a process that was natural and taken for granted, not something to be instigated or contrived. However, times have changed and sadly the opportunities for children to play and explore freely have greatly diminished over the decades, so much so that now parents and educators are starting to think about ways to actively engage children more in a world of free play.
Free Play on the Decline
There are many modern-day factors contributing to a world where children’s access to true Free Play has greatly diminished. Parents are often so busy with work, they have little free time to play with their children or the time to give to supervise them during free play. There is also a rising uptake of after school and weekend clubs, so children now have less free time to play in an undirected manner. Schools are under more and more pressure to reach increased levels of achievement, so pupils are spending progressively more time on activities that help them to pass tests. As a result the arts, science and physical activities are all suffering, with less time provided to develop these areas in the timetable.
The gradual increase of passive entertainment such as television and computer games has not helped the cause. Often these activities are one dimensional and do not encourage creativity or physical, active interaction. Alongside this, there is growing unease within communities for the safety of children playing outside of the home without close adult supervision and protection in a world of growing crime. All this goes against children having the ability to frequently access a world of Free Play.
It’s not too late to help
We now need to start to regain that natural balance between Free Play and adult initiated play. The EYFS has taken great strides in achieving more free play for young children and some schools have taken a drive towards increased free ‘challenge times’ in KS1 and KS2, but pressures still remain to drive academic achievement forwards, in children that are often not ready for this stage of cognitive development.
The EYFS is currently undergoing review once again and I hear whisperings of more changes that take away many of the fun learning elements of the Early Years Foundation Stage. Proposals to take away elements of shape and measure and focussing even more on number and calculation will lead to an even higher need for free play, to enable children to investigate shape, space and measures. A quality Sand Pit or Water Tray will remain an essential element for any classroom, ensuring that children can effectively free flow and instigate child-initiated, mathematical investigations both indoors and outdoors.
For a child to truly engage in voluntary, unstructured Free Play they must be granted the freedom to roam free and break away from adults’ intervention and guidance! Left to their own devices, children will easily initiate their own play activities by using their imaginations and will greatly benefit from exploring, experiencing and discovering the world around them. Spontaneous play derives from children’s natural curiosity, desire for discovery and enthusiasm for self-initiated exploration of their own world.
Essential Outdoor Play
Playing outdoors freely is also lots of fun: all children love to play and it allows them to get messy, make friends with other children, make choices and decide their own rules. If a child is freely engaging in running, jumping, climbing and chasing outside, they usually don’t even realise they’re exercising! Free play importantly helps children to stay healthy both mentally and physically. It can help to combat obesity and reduces the risk of serious illnesses. Play is so important that it is a human right under the UNConvention on the Rights of the Child.
Fun with Loose Parts
When children are left to their own devices and allowed to freely investigate and discover through manipulating and playing with loose parts, unstructured, creative play will naturally occur. Through playing freely with sand, mud or water, children will develop their motor skills, coordination, vocabulary, maths understanding, teamwork, problem-solving skills and knowledge and understanding of the world around them. The Construction Station and Mud Kitchen are perfect additions to any play space, enabling pupils to create their own imaginative free play. The options here for Free Play are limitless and so varied.
Learning through Observation
The outdoors provides the perfect environment for children to engage in valuable, unrestricted Free Play. Most adults, when asked, will reminisce and cite outside activities and adventures as their most favourite memories of their childhood and school. A well-designed outside space can offer all kinds of fantastic, memorable developmental opportunities for children; physical, creative, social, emotional and cognitive development are some of the main benefits children can gain from Free Play. Once free from constraints, children will explore, test their limits, experiment and learn without adult intervention. An Observatory is a great way to enable children to display and share their own discoveries and adds value to their imaginative creations on display.
Stimulating Creativity and Imagination
Free play is essential to help children to develop their individual creativity and expand their imagination. They will learn from increased interaction with the world around them, develop their social skills, improve sharing, listening and communication skills, develop empathy and sympathy and resolve disagreements. By actively and independently engaging in problem-solving and decision-making skills through imaginative pretend-play using real-life scenarios relevant to their own lives, children will grow in confidence and develop higher levels of self-esteem. The Playtime Garage, Shop and Kitchen all encourage stimulating, imaginative make-believe play.
Pretend Play is Valuable
Children are excellent at improvising and creatively using drama to pretend that their playground has transformed into a world of fantasy or adventure. Here at Schoolscapes we recognise the need for children to be able to develop their imaginations and creativity, that is why our experienced designers create playground equipment that can be transformed easily into any new object or world by the minds and imagination of children of all ages. Our intriguing Jungle Play Den can become a quiet treetop fairy retreat, a majestic fort under attack or a sturdy ship’s deck surviving the wildest seas within a blink of an eye!
Engineers of the Future
It is becoming increasingly important that parents, staff and carers support children by providing opportunities and adequate time for Free Play, enabling them to freely explore and expand their knowledge and understanding of the world around them so they are ready to face life in the real world. Our innovative Water Wall and our River Rapids are fantastically interactive, enabling children to solve their own problems through active, investigative play, whilst continually developing their social and emotional skills like sharing, listening, collaborating, co-operating and sometimes even compromising!
Active Play for Improved Well-being
Outdoor Free Play effectively develops children’s physical skills in a broader way than more structured P.E. lessons, as it does not concentrate on one planned, focussed area of physical development. Children will therefore naturally use all kinds of physical actions depending on the nature of their FreePlay at the time. Allowing children to run, jump, climb, swing, clamber, crawl and chase on a well-equipped outdoor playground has wide benefits for both physical and mental well-being. Pupils will have chance to improve their own body strength, bone density, agility, balance, hand-eye coordination, risk awareness, stamina and fitness levels. The Treetops Range, versatile Adventure Trails and colourful, vibrant Playground Markings all offer children the opportunities for extensive Free Play, with something for all ages and abilities to enjoy and feel successful.
Let’s get Children Inspired!
So, what’s not to love about Free Play?! Free Play is clearly vitally important in so many ways, helping children to explore and learn, improving social and emotional wellbeing, as well as helping children to learn about risk, increasing their self-confidence, improving their ability to concentrate and focus at school as well as to relax and sleep better at night! So its time to take a step back and let children enjoy the opportunity of freedom, only adults can offer them.