The joys of free play
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|   Nov 12, 2014
The joys of free play

The other day, our four year old shocked us anew. Not that he hasn’t shocked us every other day. But this one was a bomb even by his standards. Just when we thought we’d seen it all and heard it all from him, he comes up to us and tells us that he’s been invited on a date. I fell off the chair, while my wife went into spasms.

Now, don’t get me all wrong. I know perfectly well that dates are common in this day and age. You’re likely to find more dates in the coffee shop and pub nearby, than on a calendar. By the time a boy or girl reaches the age of 16, he or she starts going out on dates. But a date at the age of 4! When it’s just been a year since he stopped wearing diapers? When he has started eating by himself just a few months ago? When he has to depend on Mamma or Daddy to give him a bath?

You get what I mean? Which is why I duly fell off the chair, while my wife went into spasms.

Probably taking pity on us, the little one eased the pressure a little bit and clarified what he meant. A friend of his (who lives in our colony) had invited him over to his place for a play date. Oh, a play date! Suddenly, all our fears evaporated. My wife and I laughed hysterically for a minute – given the enormous relief we felt.

A play date – for those of us who came late – is apparently something of a rage these days. Two or three or any number of children gather at someone’s house and play with one another. So far, so good. But from here on, things start getting a little too complicated for me. Most of the time, play dates have a structure. Which means that, the children can’t just roam around, scream, throw a few things around, fight and laugh like crazy while playing. They have to play or undertake an activity in a structured manner, under the watchful eye of the mother of the child at whose house they have assembled. At times, the mothers of other children are also present – not to play, you silly, but to keep watch.

For instance, the children may be asked to stack rings (or toys or small books) in increasing order of size. This activity teaches them concepts like ‘order’ and ‘size’. At other times, they are asked to group objects on the basis of colour. In effect, structured play teaches children new concepts and ideas. Which is very important, no doubt.

My wife and I like such games/activities too, and encourage our little one to play them. However, if all or most of play time is devoted to thematic and structured games – like it is these days - we’d be very uncomfortable.  Where then is the time for free play – especially without adult supervision and interference?

Today, parents are keen to stage-manage children’s play time. They simply have to have their finger on the control button all the time, giving children a set of Dos and Don’ts. Which explains the obsession with structured play and the parental supervision of play time.

I believe structured play and free play are both important. Each of these methods teaches the child different things. Each plays a different and unique role in the development of the child. This fact has been documented by several research studies and emphasized by many developmental psychologists.

And so, as parents, we have to tread a balance by giving our children a judicious mix of both types of play. However, there is anyway a lot of structured play in school. Which is why, I think it is important for us to give more time for free play at home (or at a friend’s place, for that matter).

We should let our children interact with one another and figure things out by themselves. Left to their own devices, kids learn how to adjust, adapt and include one another in whatever they are doing. I have seen this several times with my child and his friends. This will not happen under structured, supervised play. On the contrary, constant parental supervision and intervention ensures that the child does not learn to think for himself/herself or to obey his/her natural impulses.

Of course, children will pull, push and fight. That is part of being a child. But even then, I have found that it is most often better for me (or my wife) not to intervene and ahem! ‘RESOLVE THE MATTER’. We are happy to let the kids do it themselves.

And they do it beautifully, before you can say “don’t fight!’. 

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