Free play in early years

Isha Anand

Teaching and learning are two experiences that we engage in throughout our lives. As social beings we make new schemas while accommodating and assimilating our prior knowledge in different social settings. Five years ago, on the day I joined as a mother-teacher in a private school in East Delhi, I was mesmerized by the classrooms. Spacious and well-lit rooms with round table set-ups, display boards with children’s drawings, and corner libraries. What caught my attention the most were the small racks filled with transparent boxes and the colourful bright teaching-learning toys peeking through them. I figured that the furniture had been designed as per Montessori specifications; reachable for children of 5 to 6 years old. While I was familiar with constructive spaces for young learners, the concept of play time was new to me. Every morning when children come to school, an hour has been designed for them to play with toys in the presence of the facilitator. The toys are varied and majorly related to the five themes in grade 1, i.e.,me and myself, food and water, plants and animals, travel and helpers around us. My mornings felt blessed as every child in my classroom would have a big smile on their face because they would begin their day playing with their mates.

As a student of education, I had learnt that play is a significant activity for a child’s physical, cognitive and socio-emotional growth. Many constructive and social theories of learning explain that play is a leading form of development in the early years. The whole concept of sending children to play schools and kindergarten is based on the reason that children learn best through activity, play, talk and self-reflection. The 19th century German educator Friedrich Froebel* founded an establishment for caring and educating young learners, called kindergarten. His approach globally influenced education in early years. According to Froebel, kindergarten is a place where children can grow and develop at their own pace, nurtured by knowledgeable and supportive adults. However, in practice I was experiencing the whole journey of creating and building a space for free play for the first time. During my internship years I was involved in making teaching-learning material for children with a basic understanding and a very specific motive that learning must happen. Here, there were no specific targets and motives to achieve any outcome from children while playing.

In those three years, free play in my classroom helped me the most to understand each of my students. Everyday children used to come and pick a toy to play alone, with friends and sometimes in teams. I could understand the socio-emotional being of my students, their interests and their relationship with their peers. What they could not express through language, they were expressing through play. I performed the role of a knowledgeable, nurturing and reflective educator while observing my students in play. One must acknowledge that the earliest years of a child’s life are the most formative years. Keeping that in mind, it becomes significant to understand what is important for a child in these years and how a child is a cognitive being? This might help us build a comprehensive knowledge about the physical, social and psychological needs of the children as well as how we as educators and facilitators can help them by becoming constructivist adults in their lives.

I observed and found that children are curious, investigative and active learners seeking to learn everything at once. They have an innate urge to do things on their own. We often find a child exploring, playing, taking things apart and continuously asking questions of how and what, about everything surrounding them. From cognitive and physical growth to socio-emotional growth, every aspect of learning is a significant necessity for a child. I could observe a very visible growth in my students. Along with playing, they would also talk to their friends, they became responsible by taking care of those toys and a number of creative ideas were blooming during that one hour. I started to keep notes of those hours for my future reference and some days I played with them too.

While doing different activities, keeping a record of events inside or outside a classroom, proves to be a significant tool for an educator. Thoughtful reflections and informed observations helped me make some significant learnings. In my six years of teaching and engaging with young learners of different age groups, I found that the central importance of play is that it is not located in discourses of outcomes or accountability. Play is the highest level of child development. It is the spontaneous expression of thought and feeling. It constitutes the source of all that can benefit the child. In the early years play is never vital, it is serious and significant. Froebel explains, in play, a child is active, moving freely, feeling, thinking and willing. Play helps children relate with their inner worlds of feelings, ideas and lived experiences. Play is significant as it helps children improve their motor skills, enhance their imaginary skills, and creativity. While playing, children develop determination, concentration, persistence and satisfaction.

In order to practice play, an educator can begin with providing rich and first-hand experiences to the learners. This might increase their interest and create endless possibilities. Time and patience requires emphasis here. Many times teachers share that children do not play with the given toys or they switch from one toy to another. Children need open-ended resources where there is a scope to explore and invent. Creating toys using waste and old material could be a fruitful and environment- friendly activity, which will bring a sense of construction among children. If we let the children choose and take control of their decisions and face the consequences, it will enable them to take responsibility and understand their roles. While creating such an environment, educators should evolve as sensitive co-players and keep interacting with the children to initiate dialogue and develop speech. Children might see you as their companion and they will ask you to play with them, but not as adults who will always help and guide. Adults’ guidance is an important aspect with mutual respect, freedom and flexibility. Froebel says, “Freedom is the biggest tool to learn and grow.” But freedom does not mean the license to do anything and everything. Freedom can only operate within a framework of responsibility and respect for each other, the resources and the natural environment. There are certain steps to carefully introduce freedom to children. Educators can ask children to make choices by providing opportunities to move freely. They can help the children to perform challenging tasks themselves which will encourage them to think for themselves and also to develop self-discipline. It will encourage them to pursue their own interests and talents.

Play as a pedagogical method has all the capacity to help a learner become a ‘whole child’ in which all aspects of a child’s life, thoughts, feelings, actions and relationships are interrelated. We as educators should therefore facilitate an environment for them to participate in free play.

*Friedrich Froebel’s Origin of Nursery Education, Cosmo Publication, New Delhi. 2007

The author is a former teacher and a postgraduate in education from Ambedkar University, Delhi. She is working with children of early years for the last eight years. She is now with an NGO called Mobile Creches in Delhi. She writes on issues of gender, feminism, childhood, and visual arts. She is an art enthusiast too. She can be reached at

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