Free unstructured play is one of the cornerstones of emotional, physical, social and cognitive child development. Play is important for children in countless areas of early development, such as language, social skills, problem solving, creativity and motor skills. In this article, Naomi Linssen, Deputy Head of Wardle House at Toorak College, examines why play is an opportunity for children to learn essential life skills early in their lives.

Growing through social emotional learning

As a mother of two independent young women, I often reflect on the dreams I had for our daughters over the years. When they were small preschoolers, I hoped they would be curious about the world and gain a lifelong love for learning. As teenagers, I sensed a shift in my aspirations for them, wishing only happiness and good health. Now as strong, self-sufficient young adults, I am proud of the resilient ‘good humans’ they have become.

In the realm of personal development, social emotional learning holds great significance. This encompasses a range of components such as social and self-awareness, empathy, reflection, responsible decision-making, self-management, resilience, collaboration and relationship skills. Reflecting on the growth and development of my own two children–as well as the students I know so well here at Toorak – I see the importance of play in their progression from childhood into the teenage years, and the influence this continues to have on their social and emotional development.

Benefits of play for child development

Free play holds multiple benefits for children's holistic development. Unstructured play without adult direction is a spontaneous activity that allows children to explore their creativity, develop their imagination, and problem solving skills in a neutral environment. Lessons and ideas learnt in play can translate into increased confidence and ability to problem-solve later when children grow into adulthood.

Engaging in play also fosters social interaction, enabling children to learn essential communication and collaboration skills as they navigate shared spaces and activities. Learning to communicate through disagreements and obstacles in play prepares children to face these situations later in life. Play also promotes emotional regulation and resilience, by providing a safe environment for children to express and manage their emotions.

Play also allows children to develop physical skills, as it encourages natural movement and the development of fine and gross motor skills. Above all, letting children play is crucial in helping them shape their identity, learn what they enjoy and are interested in, and develop a sense of autonomy and independence.

Examples of free play

Heather Hayes, educational consultant and counsellor, explains that “free play for adolescents gives them the freedom to create, invent, bend or construct rules to enhance the norm or disturb the status quo and then observe the results of their actions.”

A memorable example of free play in our own family was the day my teenage daughter came home from school with her white school shirt and long navy skirt covered in dirt and grass stains. She passionately proceeded to explain in detail the game she and her year group had invented to play on the oval at lunchtime that day. From what I could understand, it seemed to be a combination of AFL, rugby, soccer and a variety of other ball sports. According to her description, they had taken the best parts of all of these sports and combined them to create an intensely fun outdoor play. It was not a sports project, and it was not because they were told to do it. This new game simply resulted from a group of creative and excited teenagers keen to create their own fun.

I can imagine the decision-making, trial and error of rules, collaboration, compromise and negotiation that went into this. The delight and enthusiasm she exuded when telling me about their new game stuck with me. I remember thinking at the time how thrilled I was that she and her classmates felt so comfortable in their own skin to create this at school. There are so many different types of play, whether it be a new self-invented game, a competition with mates, or quiet play alone in a cubby house, all forms of play teach children something different.

Developing independence through play and exploration

Children need a safe environment to practise independent activities and develop a sense of who they are as individuals. Schools play a big part in this process, by providing children free time to play, as well as a supportive and supervised environment where everyone feels safe to express themselves and use their imagination and creativity.

Through the experiences in my family, and by observing students in Toorak College, I now also see how crucial free play experiences are in the teenage years. Research professor, Dr. Peter Gray, describes play as “nature’s way of teaching children how to solve their own problems, control their impulses, modulate their emotions, see from others perspectives, negotiate differences and get along with others as equals. There is no substitute for play as a means of learning these skills.”

Play is how children learn to take control of their lives. I think that is what we want for all of our children, no matter how old they are.

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