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Why your child needs 'free play'

By Kanchan Maslekar
May 17, 2007 10:45 IST
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Working parents, growing numbers of nuclear families, an increased focus on academics and the rising importance of 'scheduled' extra-curricular activities have reduced 'free play' time for children. Many parents believe playing is just a waste of time, but fail to realize that there's much more to playing than fun.

What is free play?

Free play is letting children play what they want to -- unstructured activity that encourages a child to use his or her imagination. This play time is not totally controlled by adults. It does not include passive play, like video games, computer games, or battery-operated toys, where the children are only viewers without any participation. However, free play doesn't mean parents shouldn't supervise their children, especially if they are playing outside. What is needed is no interference.

What does it include?

Dr Ashwini Joshi, a homeopath who conducts ante-natal and post-natal classes in Pune, lists the following requisites for free play:

• The play should be chosen by the child.

• When play is chosen as an activity, it should be chosen freely.

• It should be fun and pleasant for the child.

• It should be self motivating.

• It should promote interest and commitment in the person taking part in the game.

What are the benefits?

Stressing that play is a developmental task, Dr Joshi says it is also the process of exploring and experiencing the world. It helps children prepare themselves for a world that belongs to adults. Play helps stimulate the brain and body and makes learning easier. It allows children to have fun. But, in addition, it also encourages children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, physical and emotional strength.

Physical stimulation

Free play is an excellent way to exercise. It stimulates the development of muscles, and the functioning of all organs.

"During play, the brain receives adequate oxygen due to better blood circulation, which generates a good physical and psychological state in the child. This in turn helps the child's development of intelligence," adds Dr Joshi. She says that exercise enhances the respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous system. It increases lung capacity, which raises levels of oxygen in the blood and decreases levels of harmful gases.

Exercise also helps relieve tension and everyday stress for the child. Outdoor play helps in motor development like walking, running and jumping -- the basics of fine motor co-ordination.

Social learning

Playing with other children helps in communication. Children learn new words, and it improves their vocabulary. They learn how to strike up a conversation, how to express themselves, and how to fight their own battles without parental intervention. "When your child plays with another child, she is actually practicing social skills such as give and take, sharing, compromising, standing up for her rights and listening to the ideas of others," says Dr Joshi.

Concentration and observation skills

Be it blocks or pretend play like doctor-patient or teacher-student, play helps children develop their observation and focus on tasks in order to succeed.

Dealing with emotions

Free play also helps the child deal with different kinds of emotional experiences, be it pleasant feelings of success or uncomfortable feelings of failure and frustration. It also helps make dreams come true. They can be princesses or kings, teachers or astronauts. Role playing helps them fulfil their fantasies -- if only for a while.

Benefits for parents

Playing with children is beneficial for the parents too. "Playing with your child helps you understand your child better. It provides you with a lot of information -- you get to know your child's likes and dislikes, favourite toys, etc. It will also help parents relax more easily, which is reflected in the way they relate to the whole family, and it leads to better performance at work," says Dr Joshi. "The active participation of parents also encourages children to continue learning."

Changing times

Unfortunately, there is a marked reduction in the free time available to working parents. "Whenever they are home, they insist on spending 'quality time', urging the child to play with educational toys and discouraging free play," says Rani Shirodkar, headmistress of a private play school in Pune. The increasing popularity of CDs, videos and computer programs also leaves less time for free play.

Admission pressure for schools is tremendous, so parents need to 'package' their children with reading, writing skills, etc -- another disadvantage. Add to this the lack of space in major cities for children to play, and you have a serious problem.

Start early

Start playing with your baby to support language development and help him or her understand new things in a better way. There is no need for fancy toys. Some physical activity like kicking, lifting the hands up and down, counting fingers etc is more than enough. Make lots of play sounds to go with what's happening. Pretend sounds of toy animals and birds keep children entertained. And that's the best part about playing with a child -- it's a lot of fun, while they learn.

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Kanchan Maslekar