We discuss the importance of free play for early years children and how it helps them settle into school happily...
The importance of Free Play has been well researched. It is essential for all children to participate in Free Play. From their Early Years and throughout the Key Stages it plays a crucial role in their development. But why? Here we discuss why Free Play is so important, and how it can help Early Years learners to settle into school happily and with confidence.
“Free Play” is 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”.
When it comes to Free Play, the concept of choice is crucial. This does not mean that there should be an absence of boundaries. Required boundaries need to be managed taking into consideration first and foremost the importance of a child’s need to choose their own play, and making sure that this is facilitated.
As a general rule, children are highly motivated to play! They want to know about the world around them, and they need to be in a caring environment that allows them to explore all sorts of concepts freely, whether academic or social. Most aspects of physical and cognitive development and learning come through play. Given plenty of time for Free Play, a child’s way of playing will grow in its complexity. This is what we love about it!
Free Play Promotes Personal, Social and Emotional Development
Free Play is a great tool for children to explore and learn about the society they live in and the world around them. Through Free Play, they can create experiences that will help them to understand how society works and how to interact with other people.
Role play, for example, forms a leading part of this. Acting out situations such as family life, going to school, hospital visits, going to the shops or taking an animal to the vets, help them to know how to interact with others, to understand their own feelings and to express their emotions. Social skills such as sharing, negotiation and turn taking can be developed. They can conquer fears and practice adult roles.
This form of Free Play is an essential tool for allowing children to develop a sense of who they are and to value the thoughts and feelings of others. It also helps them to maintain emotional balance and sound mental health and well-being.
Importantly, these experiences of Free Play can help children deal with and come to terms with new experiences and new environments, such as starting a new school or moving into a new classroom. Children gradually learn as they go throughout the Key Stages how to move from being heavily supported to developing their own confidence and independence.
Allowing young children regular opportunities for Free Play and for independent play in the school playground, at regular intervals throughout the school day, will therefore make a huge difference to their ability to settle into their new environment, and to enjoy it!
Free Play Encourages Cognitive Development and a Child’s Ability to Solve Problems
Given a chance to be themselves and to engage in Free Play, great things can happen! Children learn to solve problems for themselves. Their brains thrive on the challenge! Creativity and imagination flows, they develop their own thinking skills, and invent interesting and different ways of resolving situations.
They will explore different materials and their properties, and use their knowledge of what they have discovered to play imaginatively. Water and sand play is perfect this. Offer them a Water Table, a Water Wall, a Damming Station, a Sand Box and a few props, tools and containers, and let them get to work exploring!
Adults should take a step back, and should try and stay out of any conflicts unless intervention is absolutely necessary for the sake of safety and welfare - they will learn how to negotiate and to deal with conflict, and will find a way given the chance! This is so important as children learn to become well rounded adults and learn the skills they need to do well in the world that they are growing into.
When a child is asked to solve an academic or a real-life problem, they will be better equipped to resolve it using the skills that they have practiced and learned during Free Play. When they are settling into a new school environment they will feel more confident in themselves that they can actually “do this”.
Observations have also shown that children who have regular opportunities for Free Play, creating their own entertainment in their own style and at their own pace, rather than following adult lead activities constantly throughout the day, are better able to cope with “down time” as they become older. They are more refreshed and ready to move on and re-engage during more structured lesson times.
Free Play Supports a Child’s Physical Development
Free Play usually involves children being physical, up and about and moving around using different parts of their body and working both fine and gross motor skills. It’s a great source of gentle exercise (or not so gentle depending on the game!), which helps to build their physical strength and stamina.
This in turn means that they will be better able to cope with the physical demands of school, especially very young children for whom the school day seems very long and tiring at first. Good physical health and wellbeing will help children to cope better overall in the classroom environment.
A well planned and equipped school playground which offers a range of physical challenges, from heavier activities such as running, jumping, pushing, pulling and climbing, to lighter activities such as balancing or manoeuvring objects requiring dexterity, is conducive to providing an excellent Free Play facility.
Free Play Enhances a Child’s Language and Understanding of Cultures
Free Play has enormous benefits for children learning the English language, especially Early Years learners whose speech may not yet be well developed, and those who are learning English as an additional language.
Children learn from their peers. They want to play and communicate together and in doing so they teach each other words and phrases that an adult may overlook, they practice language skills and develop their understanding of words and meanings. They explore new and different scenarios together and they trade vocabulary appropriate to these scenarios. They learn the rules of conversation, when to speak, when to pause and listen and when to respond.
And it is not enough just to play and learn language at home. Children need to play with other children from all different types of backgrounds to be able understand and respect different cultures and attitudes. Free Play in a school environment allows just that.
Good language development plays an essential role in a child’s initial years of school. It is important throughout their life, but those early years are key. If a child can develop good language skills early on, can express themselves and make themselves understood, this will alleviate so many of their worries and frustrations and allow them to be more relaxed in a school environment.
They will feel less intimidated or scared if they know that they are understood and can make their needs known. Having good language skills makes a significant difference when a child is trying to settle into school life. And if Free Play supports language development then it really should be encouraged as much as possible.
Free Play Reinforces Classroom Learning
We know from studies that Free Play is important to for healthy brain development, allowing children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, cognitive and physical abilities. Free Play is a tool for developing a child as a whole.
The skills that it allows a child to develop support a child when it comes to academic learning. It is through Free Play that children can practice and process much of the information that they have learned. After teaching a lesson, allowing children time for Free Play, in certain situations, can help them to put the information that they have just learned into imaginary or real situations.
It is not always practical for play to be used to actually teach a lesson, but this is where Free Play becomes invaluable as it can be used afterwards to reinforce. Building towers of different heights, for example, to support mathematics, or exploring materials to support science lessons.
This is really important for new starters who have to get used to the school environment. Through Free Play, it becomes easier for them to engage; they enjoy what they are doing and so they want to experience and learn more. They make new friends as they are playing together and so they feel more settled in the classroom as they are with people that they have come to know. They become better at working with each other and better ready or able to listen to their teacher.
Free Play Allows a Child to be Happy, and Their Teachers Too!
Perhaps most importantly, Free Play allows a child to be exactly that, a child! It is so important in this day and age that children have time for just having some fun, being happy doing their own thing without any pressure. And if they are happy people, they will better be ready for school and all that it throws at them.
There is plenty of time for homework and tests and sitting in classrooms. Young children need to spend time learning through play. If we want to have happy children who love learning, then making them spend too much time sitting at desks just will not do it.
They need to explore, play, move, use their motor skills and interact with each other. There is a balance to be found between the two, but provided you have a healthy mix of both then you can’t go far wrong.
And let’s not forget teachers too! Allowing time for Free Play gives teachers an opportunity to step back and observe their class. They can take a pause from teaching, allowing themselves (as well as the children) to recharge their batteries and regain inspiration for the next part of the day.
Just by stopping and quietly observing children 'Free Play', teachers can pick up on what interests their children, so they can better engage them, and where there might be issues, subjects or skills that need to be discussed or developed further. This can only serve to help teachers with their teaching and promote a happy class. And if a happy class is a productive class than Free Play has done its job.
For help and advice as to how you can improve your early years playground or other areas of your school's outdoor environment to better promote Free Play, feel free to Contact Us for a free consultation.