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Do young children today experience any free, unstructured child-led play?

Article By: Sue Learner, Editor

Play is recognised as being essential to children’s development, yet it is vital that children get to experience both structured, adult-led play as well as free child-led play. The question is does free child-led play exist anymore?

Child-led play is crucial as it boosts children’s independence and helps their social skills. Yet it can be hard for children at nursery to really experience free, unstructured, child-led play. In today’s society, where children’s lives are micro-managed and risk-assessed, it is extremely difficult to find play that is devoid of some kind of adult intervention.

What is true play?

Jan Dubiel, national director of Early Excellence, spoke at its recent conference, questioning: “What is true play? Is there any play not directed in some way by adults? As even if children have chosen what to play, it is adults who have selected the resources and the environment that children play in?”

The whole point about child-led play is that children are fully in control of it. This can be hard as adults often want to intervene but this can stop children learning from mistakes or solving problems.

In a nursery environment, child-led play can be a challenge. Free play is described by 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'.

One way of ensuring child-led play takes place is by getting them outside. Tim Gill, a consultant and writer on children’s play is a big advocate of outdoor play. He says: “Climbing a tree – working out how to start, testing for strength, feeling how the breeze in your face also sways the branches underfoot, glimpsing the changing vista through the leaves, dreaming about being king or queen of the jungle, shouting to your friends below once you’ve got as high as you dare – is an immersive, 360-degree experience that virtual or indoor settings simply cannot compare with.”

'Possibilities are endless when you enter a natural environment'

Clare Caro, founder of Nature Play, which runs play sessions in woods around the UK, describes child led play as being where “the child takes the lead, so that they can follow their own play urges”.

She says: “The possibilities are endless when you enter a natural environment. Every garden, beach, stream and glade offers many multi-sensory learning opportunities for every age and stage of development. Touching, listening, collecting stones, throwing sticks, crawling up and sliding down slopes, and building structures that are furnished by the imagination - all play in a natural environment ensures a master-class with the natural materials.”

She advises adults to follow the lead of the child and says: “If they feel like climbing or finding acorns in the undergrowth, it is their curiosity that is driving their wonder and learning. You become a 'learning ally' when you understand your child needs to direct their own explorations.”

She also urges adults to wait and watch. “The exhilaration of discovery is something we can all identify with. In order for children to discover climbing or what wet leaves smell like, a learning ally takes a step back to let them discover. At the same time a learning ally is there to support them if required or requested.

“Some things take time when you are learning, or when you are still perfecting the use of your body, so instead of jumping in to put a name the creature they have in their hand or to lift them up where they need to persevere with acquiring climbing skills, let's stand back. Let's watch and wait to be invited in to support.”

Vocabulary shapes the way children see the world

Vocabulary is also important as it shapes the way children see the world. Clare Caro points out that a trap we all fall into is describing a rainy day as a “miserable day”. She says: “While we are saying to our children, "It's a miserable day out there", what sort of information are they getting from us about nature when it rains, when it is cold, windy or overcast? What do they make of us when we follow it up with, "Let’s get outside then"... outside into that which we have just described with unpleasant words and a frown? No wonder some of our children don't want to get out in all weathers. They are hearing 'crossed wires'”.

She advises swapping miserable for “drizzling, wet, brisk, cold, blusterous or windy” so they can see the magic of the seasons, rather than viewing them negatively.

Sophie Christophy, another advocate for outdoor play, describes one of her best Nature Play sessions when it was pouring with rain. “At first there was a sense of resistance amongst the adults. This quickly melted – the rain forced us into the moment. The children were in paradise, and a sense of euphoria spread through the group. A muddy lake appeared as if by magic. The children were lost in wonder, their senses totally captured by the sights, smells and sounds of the downpour. The adults were liberated, with wide grins and a rebellious sense of wild abandon.”

These are Sophie Christophy's tips for outdoor play

- Make it a regular part of your week – same time, same day. Commit to going, whatever the weather.

- Be weather prepared – put together a bag with clothing and footwear and any other accessories to accommodate any weather (an all in one waterproof is highly recommended).

- Find somewhere to go that you love, that you will look forward to going to.

- Take snacks and water.

- Remember that you don’t need to do anything. Given the chance (time and space) the children will find their own way and their own enjoyment of the setting. Leave expectations behind you and go with their flow.

Adult-led play

Of course adult-led play as well as adult-initiated play, where the play is set up by the adults for the children to discover and shape as they wish, are also important.

Babies and children learn by copying and as Jan Dubiel, national director of Early Excellence, points out they are constantly picking up stuff from what is going on around them. Ninety-nine per cent of what people do is learned behaviour.

With this in mind, he told childcare practitioners at the recent Early Excellence conference “You need to be proud of what you do. We change people’s lives and we shape society every day.

“As early year practitioners, we have around 1,000 interactions a day. The way you interact with children and talk to children affects the way they act and play. Everything you do helps shape the child.”

All play is important and its impact on the development of the child should not be underestimated.

As George Bernard Shaw famously said: “We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing!”


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