Free play is, as suggested by the name, when children play spontaneously with the activities or objects around them without being directed by an adult. When Breanna took her daughter Sybil to her first day at her local North Adelaide childcare centre, she was interested to observe how the young children partook of the activities. She noticed that the centre allowed the children to move about the interconnected rooms as they wished, including continual access to outdoor play.
Free play is a natural way to learn
Children are programmed to play, taking the opportunities to discover and learn about the world around them as they do so. When children are allowed to play freely, their minds develop strong neurological connections that allow them to learn new ideas and apply this learning to new applications.
Promoting learning through free play
In an early learning centre, activities are cleverly designed by the educator to build on a child’s knowledge and facilitate new learning experiences. Children’s own interests are taken into account and games and toys intrinsically direct children to form new conclusions or make new discoveries. Learning can be multifaceted – children can learn how water fits into containers, how to climb up a rope, or how to count to ten.
A big part of free play in child care centres is learning how to work with others. As other children join in with the activity or want to take their turn, there is plenty of opportunity to learn negotiation skills, conflict resolution and simple taking turns. It helps them to discover how other people feel and react and learn some empathy for others.
Freely available painting stands, musical instruments, playdough, plastic bricks and craft materials allow children to express their creativity as and when they feel inspired. Children learn about textures, shapes, and movement as well as improving fine motor skills as they use the materials.
Children have different levels of energy, and allowing them to play freely either outside as they chose allows them to express themselves in the best way that suits them. Children develop at varying paces and in different areas at a time. While one child may be concentrating on building with construction toys, or finishing a jigsaw, another may be climbing the rope frame or riding a trike at full speed.
Though teacher directed learning also has a place in early education, free play allows children to follow their own interests and engage in activities that inspire them. This helps them build on knowledge they already have, as well as facilitating play based learning. Sybil’s favourite activity was firstly the sandpit where she would experiment with the containers and other toys. Breanna noticed that she would have a strong focus on one activity then move to another with the same focus. Children play to learn about the world, to discover and to learn new skills and at a young age, they will follow their own learning path more easily than if they are directed by an educator.