Modern childhood is increasingly regimented, especially in education where the demands of the statutory EYFS framework put increasing emphasis on more formal, structured types of learning. While the pros and cons of this approach are hotly debated, one thing remains clear: at a young age, free play is vital to child development. Here we look at how children benefit from free play and how EYFS providers can facilitate it.
What is free play?
Free play, also known as unstructured play, means giving children the opportunity to choose what they want to do and how they do it. Although adults need to facilitate the time, space and equipment needed, children should be the ones leading the activities and adults should not direct or guide them to meet learning outcomes or curriculum targets. It should be nothing more than pure play.
This, of course, doesn’t mean free play is without value. In fact, it is fundamental to child development and beneficial in numerous ways.
Social, emotional & personal development
When able to play freely, children interact in different ways and have many different experiences, some real and, through roleplay, some imaginary. Both types of experience help children explore the world they live in. They learn how to make friends, communicate, express emotions and feelings and, through roleplay, they can explore a wide range of different social situations, roles and relationships.
This is highly valuable for helping them develop key social skills, build self-confidence and overcome anxieties. It also helps them to understand other people’s feelings and how their own behaviour can affect others.
Cognitive & problem-solving skills
Many of the cognitive and problem-solving skills children need to progress in education are developed naturally through free play: they learn to think for themselves and solve problems creatively, coming up with their own solutions. The more opportunity they have, the more they are able to apply what they have learnt to other problems, including those inside the classroom.
Provided they have the right resources available to them, free play also gives children the chance to explore the properties of different physical materials. This is why equipment like magnetic water walls and messy play areas with mud kitchens and sand pits are so important. It’s play in one sense, but science and maths in another.
Problem solving also comes into play when there are disagreements or fallings-out in the playground. Faced with these issues, children quickly learn the skills to resolve them, such as turn-taking, sharing, negotiating and compromising.
Young children’s bodies are still developing and need physical activity to increase strength and stamina, as well as develop physical skills, like fine motor, balance and coordination. As children at this age are often bouncing with energy, their free play choices usually involve physical exertion of some kind; however, they need plenty of opportunities to be active and have the right apparatus available to them to develop in the ways their bodies need.
To facilitate this, EYFS providers need a well-designed and suitably equipped playground that presents children with a selection of age-appropriate physical challenges. This should offer children the opportunity to do active things like run, jump, swing, climb and manoeuvre, as well as take part in activities that develop more refined skills, like catching, throwing, balancing, stepping, drawing, and digging.
Taking part in active free play doesn’t just help with physical development. When children enjoy these activities at an early age, it improves the chance that they will go on to adopt healthier lifestyles as they grow older and could, therefore, play a key role in their long-term health. Physical activity is also beneficial for mental wellbeing. With mental health issues now affecting growing numbers of children right across the age ranges, it is important to give them more opportunities to take part.
Free play is essential for child development, giving children the opportunity to develop social, emotional, personal, cognitive, problem-solving and physical skills. Rather than being thrust upon them through a regimented curriculum, it allows children to learn creatively and intuitively, at their own pace and in a way that suits their own interests and needs.
While EYFS providers have to fulfil the requirements of the EYFS framework, providing opportunities for free play enhances children’s ability to succeed at this stage of their education. To facilitate this, providers need to ensure that their children have the adequate time, space and resources to take part.
If you are looking for free play equipment for your EYFS playground, visit our EYFS Products page.