At Ecole Des Petits Amis, we are big believers in the importance of free play in preschool. We are among a rapidly growing percentage of preschools that are heeding the research-driven call to swing away from a strictly academic focus and return to the wonder, delight, and choice of play-based learning. Instead of giving four-year-olds worksheets, inundating them with french audio, and grilling them on verb conjugations, we focus on play as the foundation for learning. Play, we believe, should be viewed not as antithetical or inferior to academics, but as a means to actually enhance the learning process in a way most natural and beneficial to children. The
What is Free Play?
Free play, as defined by counsellor and psychotherapist Georgina Manning, Director of Wellbeing For Kids, is simply “play which is not directed by an adult in any way, but where children choose activities or games that interest them.”(https://www.firstfiveyears.org.au/early-learning/the-importance-and-benefits-of-free-play)
That’s it. No leading, enforcing, or drilling allowed. Free play is simply allowing children to explore and engage with each other and any objects, activities or games they choose. Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t supervise, redirect, or encourage. Being physically and emotionally present is wonderful and highly encouraged for parents and educators; the trick is not to structure and direct.
Leah Shafer, writing for Harvard Graduate School of Education, highlights three indicators of playful learning. These are choice, wonder, and delight. “Choice looks like kids setting goals, developing and sharing ideas, making rules, negotiating challenges, and choosing how long to play. Wonder looks like kids exploring, creating, pretending, imagining, and learning from trial and error. Delight looks like happiness: kids smiling, laughing, being silly, or generally feeling cozy and at ease.” (https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/06/summertime-playtime)
As educators and parents, we can use these three indicators – choice, wonder, and delight – as guidelines to the basis and substance of free play.
Benefits of Free Play
Free play isn’t all fun and games. Or rather it is, but at an academic and developmental level, play is where learning happens. Play forms a child’s context for learning. Where we think of learning as overt, directed, and structured, children actually do almost all of their learning through play. Some of these developmental benefits of free play include:
- Language and vocabulary development
- Social skills & collaboration
- Fine & gross motor skills
- Imagination & creativity
- Problem solving and mathematics
- Stress reduction
- Exploration & discovery
- Decision making & independence
- Discovery of interests
- Executive function skills
- Emotional self-regulation
And as for all those academic-based preschool programs? Well, research shows that an overtly academic approach doesn’t actually improve classroom performance. Children who attend play-based preschools are shown in multiple studies to excel their peers both academically and socially. These studies have also linked free play to enhanced language ability. Citing this research, an article for Parents Magazine encourages parents to choose play-based preschools, noting “[y]our child’s future success in school doesn’t hinge on your enrolling him in a pre-K that teaches him to add and subtract or know the chemical formula for water. It’s more productive to find a program that lets him have fun as he learns.” (http://bit.ly/380tpBW)
Free Play at École Des Petits Amis Preschool
With the bevy of research on the benefits of free play, Ecole Des Petits Amis is proud to offer a play-based French Immersion preschool program. This means that instead of focusing solely on teacher-directed activities, we have intentionally structured our time to include generous amounts of free play, mixed with a variety of structured and unstructured activities throughout the day.
We begin our time with 45 minutes of free play, where we mingle with the children, observing, encouraging and directing as needed. During this time, your children direct their own play with a variety of objects, activities and crafts we have specifically chosen. These include sensory play bins (more about these here) , crafts, costumes, blocks, puzzles, literacy, games, books, and – of course – their peers. We then transition into structured time where we sing, learn, and have storytime in a teacher-directed manner. Following snack, children then enjoy a final 15 minutes of free play before we transition back to the carpet for story time, calendar, show & tell before pick-up.
In both structure and unstructured time, children are learning and developing; however, we observe that free play is the time when children best make social connections, express creativity, practice communication skills, problem solving, collaborating, discovering, and experience both joy and deep focus.
Encouraging Free Play at home
As parents, we often feel like we are doing a better job when we structure our children’s activities, enroll them in a variety of extracurricular activities, entertain them at home, and ‘stimulate their minds’ with learning activities on the iPad. And while it’s great to be involved in our children’s lives and to take them to swimming lessons, research shows that kids need large amounts of unstructured, screen- and activity-free time for play.
Counsellor and psychotherapist Georgina Manning, Director of Wellbeing For Kids, states: “Research shows that when children are using their imagination or in the state of wonder of their natural environment, just playing for the sake of playing without any expected outcome from an adult, then their brains are refreshed and rested …Children need to rest their brains regularly and by taking children from activity to activity, this only stresses children, leaving little time for this vital play time. Not only is this vital for children’s mental health and overall wellbeing, but essential for [the] development of social and emotional skills.” (https://www.firstfiveyears.org.au/early-learning/the-importance-and-benefits-of-free-play)
Most of us have heard the dreaded words: “I’m bored!”. Our kids demand our attention, ask for screen time, and want to sign up for ukulele lessons because ‘all my friends are doing it’. How can we convince ourselves – let alone our children – to engage in free play? Ben Mardell, a researcher, educator, and expert on play and development, offers the following suggestions:
- “Plan for play, and create the space for it
- Find fun in the materials you have
- Be open to risk
- Model play
- Play together
- Wait out the cries of ‘I’m bored’” (https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/06/summertime-playtime)
There are many options for free play to offer to children at home. Think Lego, dressup, jigsaw puzzles, outdoor time, puppet shows, drawing, singing, playing with pets, free time with friends, and imaginative play with simple toys. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Lay out some activities, wait out the protests of boredom, and watch your children be swept up in the choice, wonder and delight that are the hallmarks of free play!
And make sure to pat yourself on the back: in allowing your children this time to refresh their minds through independent play, you are giving them all the incredible research-backed development benefits inherent in this crucial process. (Plus, instead of doing it from the bench of a hockey arena at 5AM, you get to do it with a newspaper and a hot cup of coffee at home!)