Thursday, 3 April 2014

In praise of free play #LetKidsBeKids

I haven't done a post to link in with Let Kids Be Kids for a while, and there's a reason for that: I haven't done much. That is to say, I haven't done much that is particularly bloggable. (Yep, I made up that word. But it's a good word. Use it in a sentence today.)

A combination of teething hell for Eleanor and starting up a business for me (more on this ... oh, at some point, when I have the energy) means that I haven't been putting much thought into the activities we've been doing together. Three days a week we go to groups and on the free days it's all too tempting to veg out at home and just let her entertain herself with her Duplo or soft toys. On nice days we've been out in the garden, but again we've done nothing much other than pottering about, terrorising worms. (Well, Eleanor does that. I try and stop her. And inevitably fail.)

But hang on - is that really a bad thing? After all, she's two. Only two. While crafts and specific messy play activities are nice and everything, is there really anything wrong with a two-year-old just doing her own thing?

Today a news story is going round about the chief of Ofsted saying that more children should start school at the age of two. I find this unspeakably sad. In the UK we already have an earlier school starting age than most other countries, despite so much evidence showing that children learn best through free play. Willshaw seems to have missed the point to me: if children are not ready for school at the age of 4 or 5, perhaps the problem lies not with the child but with the starting age - an extra year or two to develop could be all they need. But I digress.

My point is, free play is important, especially in the early years. I think it actually helps with communication - Eleanor will chat away to herself while she's engrossed in her play world, mimicking things she's heard me say, lines from books and, ahem, TV. And she will happily line up toys and count them too, so it's helping with her number skills. She doesn't need formal schooling to teach her these things - she's basically teaching herself, we've just got her started by reading, talking about numbers, and talking to her in general.

And Eleanor isn't that interested in structured play anyway. I take her to a playgroup once a week where they have a short craft activity at the end. Sometimes she joins in but for the past couple of weeks she's been more interested in playing with their fabulous doll's house. And that's fine. I'd rather leave her to do something she enjoys than try and cajole her into sticking things in the 'right' place and end up finishing it myself when she wanders off! Similarly, at home, if she wants to spend half an hour playing Ring o' ring o' roses with a toy rabbit and orangutan, why should I try to persuade that she'd rather do some painting for ten minutes of entertainment followed by twenty minutes of cleaning up?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying structured activities are bad. If they're what the child wants to do, then great. This morning Eleanor demanded that we 'bake teddies' (i.e. teddy-shaped gingerbread) at 8.30am. I went with it, even though my preference was for changing out of our pyjamas. But there's enough pressure on parents without them worrying about setting up exciting crafts that they've seen on Pinterest but that will ultimately end up with a half-finished cardboard animal of some description, mess all over the floor and a child who has tottered off to play with their cars. Yes, if the kid is bored, pull something fun out of the bag to mix things up. But if they're happy, let 'em play for goodness sake, and get yourself a cuppa!

I'll leave you with a picture of a game Eleanor likes to play called See How Many Soft Toys You Can Fit In A Potty. You couldn't make it up. Well, she can. And she did. Because she's two.


  1. In Scotland our school starting age works a little differently, the cut off is the end of February instead of the end of August so no child should start earlier than 4.5, indeed Bagl will be 5 years 5 months when he starts, which I am pleased about. It scares me that starting at 2 is even being considered!

    We do free play most of the time, partly due to my own laziness (I was sure I was going to be a Pinterest-crazy crafty mum), and partly because that's just what he prefers.

  2. Very true. Free play is so important to children.I must admit I do lots of activities with my kids, but often they only take a short time to do and the rest of the day is free play. I do like to have a bit of both.
    Thanks for sharing #Letkidsbekids