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Children’s Play

By: Linda Bresgi (Intern Educational Psychologist)

“Children’s play is not mere sport. It is full of meaning and import.” – F. Froebel

Play as learning:

According to early childhood specialist Davin (2013), play is the most valuable activity for the purpose of learning and a program that limits the time children spend playing limits their opportunities to learn.  Play and school readiness are highly correlated and according to Landreth (2012) play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.

Research shows that the first five years of life are critical to a child’s lifelong development. Young children’s earliest experiences and environment set the stage for future development and success in school and life. Early experiences can actually influence brain development, establishing the neural connections that offer the foundation for language, reasoning, problem solving, social skills, behaviour and emotional health (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2008). School Maturation on the other hand refers to a biological process in the development when certain skills emerge before children start school. This implies physical as well as mental maturity. This maturation process cannot be rushed but appropriate and consistent support by caregivers can help the process along (Davin, 2013).


What is free play?

Free play can be understood as a self-motivated, unstructured activity where the child chooses what and how to play.  Free play is “free”, because the child chooses what he does, how he does it, how long he does it and with whom he does it. Free play is “play”, because the activity creates pleasure within the child. However, free play also involves learning and is considered essential for the all-round development of the child. Learning however begins long before a child enters pre-school.

How can parents facilitate free play?

No child becomes ready on their own. It is an ongoing process and infants and young children thrive when parents and families are able to surround them with love and support and opportunities to learn and explore their world (Webster-Stratton, 2013).

Free play can include imaginative play, such as ‘dressing up’ or playing games such as ‘cops-and-robbers’. Encouraging fantasy play need not, however, cost parents money. Parents could for example enhance fantasy play by providing their children with props and items such as old dresses, shoes, empty shampoo bottles or an old hair dryer. Free play can also include; building with blocks or construction material, manipulative play such as playing with clay or water. Perceptual games such as memory games and puzzles, and also, outdoor play, such as climbing on the jungle gyms, kicking around a ball or playing in the sandpit.

Why is free play important?

Free play offers children the opportunity to choose for themselves, therefore encouraging independent decision making. There is no right or wrong choices with play and therefore children can manage at their own developmental levels. There is no chance of failure at free play and consequently encourages a positive self-esteem.

Free play also has an important role in the social development of the child. Playing offers an opportunity to learn socially acceptable behaviour such as taking turns and sharing and aids in the child becoming less egocentric. Free play also plays a valuable role in the language and cognitive development of the child as it provides an opportunity to use language creatively, learn new vocabulary and become familiar with certain concepts such as ‘in’, ‘out’, ‘on top’, underneath’. It also offers opportunities for problem solving, leadership and creative thinking.

In a world of TV’s, IPads and computer games, children seem to be spending less and less time being physically active. With the rise of obesity and associative diseases in our society, physical exercise needs to play a larger role in their daily program. During free play, children are encouraged to play outdoors, thus helping maintain their physical health. Physical exercise is not only beneficial for the burning up of energy, but also benefits children’s gross motor and fine motor development, eye-hand and eye-foot coordination.

In terms of emotional development, play allows children to express themselves freely and become familiar and comfortable with a variety of feelings. Playing is therapeutic for children as it allows the child a chance to act out experiences and deal with their emotions through their play.

Ububele and play:

Ububele recognises the importance of play in the facilitation of school readiness and school maturation. Furthermore, Ububele also acknowledges that the process can be enhanced by the relationship between the caregiver and child and supporting opportunities that encourage play.  The ‘Right to play’ programme that runs out of the Ububele mobile bus that visits Stjwetla on a regular basis is an example of how Ububele aims to facilitate parent-child relationships through play.  During the sessions, facilitators encourage the various domains of school readiness; physical and motor, emotional and social, cognitive and language development through interaction with the children and their caregivers.  The success of the programme relies on the understanding that in order for the programme to be of most benefit, caregivers also need to become involved!

If a child is provided with the right environment, they will play meaningfully and reach their full potential of learning opportunities through play.  Over time, Ububele is slowly starting to help parents realise the importance of their involvement in motivating play and creating play opportunities in the development of skills related to reading, writing, mathematics and emotional well-being. These are important skills children need to acquire with regards to learning and ‘school readiness’.

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