Thinking Summer Camps? NO, Let Them Play Free! Here’s Why

In this era of 'manicured gardens' and 'coaching classes' for everything conceivable to 'improve' kids' skills, where is the time for the essential free play?

In this era of ‘manicured gardens’ and ‘coaching classes’ for everything conceivable to ‘improve’ kids’ skills, where is the time for the essential free play?

A picture popped up on my screen today while cleaning up the desktop. The boys and their friend were playing in the sand with myriad sand toys. The younger one was carefully shovelling sand and covering each inch of the other toddler’s leg with it.

That’s what most evenings looked like. Sometimes they’d run around with arms stretched out pretending to be a pterodactyl, at others they’d just chase each other. We got quite a few disapproving looks since their peers were enrolled in academies to ‘learn’ sports, dance, maths, and the revered p’s and q’s. Mine just played. Plus some residents did not take kids running around in ‘their’ parks very well. We ignored them.

Playing in parks: out of bounds

Sadly, the number of children in parks is rapidly falling either due to lack of time or due to strict park-rules. The government of course does not make the rules, but the local ‘park maintenance authorities’ happily build a list of commandments mostly directed against children:

  • Thou shalt not step on grass
  • Thou shalt not play with ball
  • Thou shalt not even dream of team games
  • And if thou art a teenager, what are you doing playing anyway?

The last one is a current sore spot. With the boys at 14 and 16, they tower over me and are eyed suspiciously by the self appointed ‘Park-president’. Their age is questioned. Their ‘purpose and right’ to be in the park is discounted, and basically they like most of their friends are shooed away. They are either seen dragging their feet back home sooner than expected or grumbling indoors.

The rash of ‘sports coaching’

The proportion of kids indulging in make-believe play using all sorts of tools ranging from toys to the bowl that the exasperated mum gave them, is dwindling too. And it is sadder to see them all lined up in a field, taking turns to kick the ball at the coach’s whistle when they could have been running aimlessly pretending to be a superhero.

In our bid to get the children to master some sport or the other, we have snatched their free play time from them. What we do not realise is that by doing so we are negatively effecting their brain.

The science behind ‘free play’ time…

It is common knowledge that the first five years of one’s life is crucial to neural growth, with 90% of the brain development happening till then. However, most of us do not realise the importance of free play in the development of brain, particularly the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC).

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Without turning this into a physiology lesson, let’s just say that development in PFC is extremely crucial to facets ranging from decision-making, working memory, complexity of thought to adaptability to different situations and emotional intelligence. And free play simply refers to activities where there are no set rules, criteria or outcomes.

…that links directly to kids’ intelligence

When a child indulges in free play, the synapses in PFC light up. This rapid connection between brain cells, leads to thicker cerebral cortex. Simply put, children who indulge in free play grow up to be more intelligent.

Every time the child sees the mirror shine on one of the blocks, hears the toy telephone ring, or for that matter lines up stones in the park to form an army, he is becoming smarter. As parents we are always worried about grades, and to our relief another study showed that academic performance in eighth grade was linked with a child’s social skills in third grade. And social skills are heavily influenced by the degree of free play in a child’s life!

How does this ‘magic’ happen?

When a child is left to his own devices, he makes his own rules, starting with playing alone as a baby. From stuff that they find around the house, colourful blocks, to those stacking toys or utensils – they keep themselves endlessly engaged. Soon he starts indulging in parallel play wherein there are other kids present but the baby is still somewhat on his own. After this, the child starts associating and cooperating with other children. Games are invented, things at hand find innovative usage, toys are shared, rules are made, amended and broken, and imagination is stretched beyond what our adult minds can fathom. If during all this we could watch the brain activity, we’d see a sky brilliantly lit up by fireworks.

Why is free play essential?

When we talk of importance of free play, the effects are not limited just to better grades. The free-playing kids:

  • are socially more adept,
  • adapt quickly to changing circumstances,
  • are more expressive,
  • have a higher potential for being creative and have more language skills,
  • have a better attention-span (in fact a growing body of research indicates that Two hours of active play per day may play a crucial role in reducing attention deficits and hyperactivity.),
  • have higher problem-solving skills and,
  • learn to recognise and regulate emotions.

This list is not exhaustive. It just outlines how, when your child splashes in puddles with his friends, he is actually indulging in multidimensional development. On the other hand, a child who leads a fairly regimented life with little or no opportunity to rough it out, enact elaborate scenes with his toys, or invent new games with friends, may sadly fail to make neural connections that are essential for later learning.

Health implications

The implications are not just psychological or social, physical health takes the hardest fall. According to a recent study published in Paediatric Obesity, an international journal, by 2025, India will have over 17 million obese children and would stand second among 184 countries as far as the number of obese children are concerned. Yes, diet plays a crucial role. But an important aspect is absence of free play.

I remember my childhood evenings being spent aimlessly and endlessly cycling down the streets or playing in the local parks. The neighbourhood was a like a big extended family. Mum would come out every evening to hunt me down. Sometimes she’d have to hose me down to get rid of the sand I’d have rolled in at the park.

No parks for play?

Things aren’t the same. Parks are gone. They have been replaced by manicured, ornamental walkways lined with pretty plants, guarded by a handful of disgruntled residents. And they go to all extents to prevent the children from playing there. To add to it all, our education system systematically and thoroughly teaches them blind compliance. They rarely question. As a result, the parks are losing their sheen, the children. There are plenty of exotic flowers and a lush green carpet of grass, but giggles can rarely be heard.

What the RWA’s or the local Park presidents do not realise is that in their meaningless power induced intoxication, they are doing a great disservice to the next generation. When they build a pretty little gazebo in the centre of the park they rob the children of an opportunity to run freely from one end to another. And when they threaten the kids and shove them out of the park, it is nothing short of criminal. The parks, after all are public areas which should be accessible to everyone.

Let them just play…

To cut the long story short, the next time you get an impulse to put your pre-schooler in an ‘enrichment’ class, just go to the nearest park and let him loose, or let him line up his animal figures in long concentric circles to recreate an African jungle meeting. Those children who are barely out of their cradles and into a ‘five to six pm, weekdays only class’ are losing out valuable time. That very time could have been used to construct a million new neural pathways. That time is wasted learning rules of the game that they could very well have mastered later.

Unstructured play-time is not just a stress buster, it is crucial to development. And in the rush to hop from one milestone to another, we are somehow losing sight of this fact. We want our manicured gardens devoid of screeching children, our little ones to be geniuses, and our shelves to be full of meaningless medals. Sadly the child that plays house, stacks up blocks, upturns the toy bin to create a toy-flood, digs up tunnels in mounds of sand, watches fountains of water gushing out of shoe eyelets on a rainy day, or quietly waits for the play dough dragon-eggs to hatch is missing. We need to bring that child back, for her own sake.

Images source: pixabay

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About the Author


Dr. Tanu Shree Singh is a parent to two preteen boys, a lecturer in Psychology, and has a keen interest in the area of Positive Psychology. Most of her theories of bringing up children, however, read more...

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