The 3U of Free Play – Understanding, Uncover, Undisrupted

The 3U of Free Play – Understanding, Uncover, Undisrupted

Question: Hi Huimin, tell us more about yourself -
FTK: I’m a mother to a pair of spirited girls who fire up my creativeness and inspire me to find my inner child. I used to run a boutique paper styling agency, “For The Wedding”, and handcrafted thousands of paper blooms that made appearances in various events such as weddings, fashion shows, gala dinners, media launches, charity music video and MediaCorp dramas. I have since taken a back seat at work and devote fully to my children’s early childhood influence.

Question: How do you cope with 2 kids by your own and run FTK at the same time.-
FTK: I’m no unicorn mum, I can’t handle everything without hiccups so I learn to accept my imperfections. I’d prioritise what’s important in the season and try not to overstretch myself. I only get to IG story when I have pockets of time in between the day, and craft a post at night when the day has been done and dusted. There will be occasional dry periods on social media posting, that’s when I take charge of my well being, be it catching up with friends, sleeping early, watching a variety show or reading a book. Other times that are not mentioned, I’d be with the kids mostly, guiding them to discover play and practice helping themselves in our home settings.

Question: How did For The Kid came about?
FTK: Guiding the children on practical living activities, intentional plays and reading up on parenting are some things that take up bulk of my life this stay home season. That’s where I realise that there’s a whole lot of knowledge out there to work with a rambunctious child and nurture a natural learner.

Question: Tell us more about that!
FTK: Alright! Let’s explore the 3U for free play to begin!

The 3U of Free Play – Understanding, Uncover, Undisrupted

Free play is an endangered activity in today’s early childhood landscape. The quick answer to an infant’s whine or a toddler’s boredom is often relied on devices; and the conscious way of enhancing a child’s learning is to pack his schedule with meaningful structured classes. The value of free play is undermined and often forgotten, if not for the constant reminders you see on social media promoting it.

Through this article, I hope to introduce you to the 3 Us to free play. You have to first Understand what it is, then Uncover the possibilities with the child, and allow Undisrupted time to free play.

1. Understanding Free Play
“Isn’t free play a waste of time? They could do so much more things using the time spent playing aimlessly.”

Playing without structured planning is often being misunderstood as a non-accomplishing pastime that a child entitles himself to AFTER completing certain “official work”.


“What does free play do then?”

My short answer is:
Sufficient unstructured free play promotes (1) soft skills and the scaffolding of (2) hard skills.
(1). Emotional balance, resilience and other higher order thinking
(2). Motor skills, balance, bilateral coordination and more

My long answer is as follow:
Unstructured free play is a block of time that allows children to play without threats, judgements or rules. Free play encompasses going to playground, writing and composing, art making (drawing, painting or creating) and toy exploration. Basically, anything that the child does in his free will, and attempts out of passion or curiosity.

Here are some benefits that free play brings to the table:

Social skill
When the child plays with other children during free play, he learns how to find a way to enter an existing play, navigate unspoken rules at play, learn about fairness, taking turns and empathy when someone gets hurt or left out. They get to share thoughts and ideas while listening and making compromise.

Problem Solving
When being greeted with conflicting interests at play, say both parties want the same piece of magnet tile or wish to have a go on the swing at the same time, they need to perform negotiation to reach a consensus to the matter. Problem solving can even happen during solo play! He could be playing with Duplo bricks and face challenges during the construction process. That’s when he realizes a 10 studs brick can be attained by combining 6 studs and 4 studs. Hey, that’s some unplanned mathematical learning! Subconsciously, the child has just worked out number bonds during play, the hands on way.

Emotional Benefits
Children get to experience disappointment and tolerate frustrations when things don’t go their way. Adding a wrong stroke to a painting or having a tall structure toppling can stir emotions at times. That’s when we want them to learn how to cope with these big feelings (through guidance when necessary) and develop self-motivation qualities. Allowing them to go through these emotions now is important. The resilience and self-talks that they master now, will walk them through more difficult times in later years, as they are bound to meet with more intense issues than a toppling block or torn paper. Free play also helps in improving other higher order thinking such as planning, predicting, anticipating consequences and adjusting to surprises.

Sustaining Attention
When a child is free to explore play in his own definition, he is being led by his intrinsic desire to learn. A child who loves water may figure out his way to play with a tub of water littered with cup, watering can, pipette and scoops. When that happens, the child gets invested in his own play and could probably extend a good amount of time focusing on it. The more a child is exposed to such play, the more the child’s attention span is stretched.

Gross Motor and Fine Motor Skills
Motor skills are honed during play. Running and climbing in playground promotes gross motor skills, monkey bar play develops good posture and balance, blocks building and drawing works on grips and fine motor skills, and the list goes on. If you look hard enough, free play is often packed with such motor skills training without you setting up specific activity to work on it.

Other skills that are hidden during a play include (not limiting to) language skills, hand eye coordination, shoulder stabilisation, bilateral coordination, spatial relations, colour discrimination and crossing midline.

2. Uncover Possibilities of Play

As bizarre as it sounds, we have to show the child how to play, especially when a child is new to free play after spending months or years on screen time to kill boredom.

Remember the times you guided your newly minted toddler at a playground, and showed him how to scale a ladder or holding him down a slide? That’s you trying to show the possibilities at playground. The child will eventually discover other parts of the playground with that initial exposure led by you.

Similarly, the child needs to know the possibilities of the new tools he is being presented to spark off the inspiration in playing them. Some examples include showing a toddler how a crayon makes mark on paper, how to scoop and pour water using a cup, how magnet tiles attract at the edges, how to fit shapes into respective pits and how we can use little figurines to complement a play.

Open ended toys are often being associated with free play because they present unlimited opportunities. The blocks can be a farm this minute, and an underwater world the next. Before the child get to the assembly of such intricate build-ups, there are many layers of skills waiting to be scaffolded during play.

Note: I’m not asking you to build the whole city FOR him, but to build WITH him at the start to show him that blocks can be lined, stacked or bridged. Young toddlers may not build pretty city or stunning castle due to their underdeveloped skillsets, but they can sure make sense of stacking and do that repeatedly to master the skill.

3. Undisrupted / Protected Free Play Time

Just like how you schedule the child’s time for classes and activities, you have to set aside time for free play to happen. You may want to protect this block of time from assessment books, screen time/video games and writing words from upcoming spelling test a hundred times. It is a time for them to be bored. Only when they are bored will they start finding out what they can or want to do.

Note that screen time and video games are not considered free play.

“Is it okay to send my child to classes then?”
If there’s a deep passion in certain talents you see in your child and the child is receptive to the classes, it’s perfectly fine to nurture and develop that passion. However, if you’re doing so to prevent your child from falling behind standards, then I’d say let him play more.

You may also want to avoid over scheduling a child’s day such that the child is deprived of a chance to imagine, be curious and discover learning through play. Overscheduling will only cause the child to feel exhausted and overwhelmed.

In our current fast-paced society, it is important to provide undisrupted time for free play to relax from rules, find the emotional balance from within and unwind their hectic day. Play reduces stress.

In conclusion, play is children’s work. The benefits that they reap from playing and discovering will do more good than harm.


Written By: Huimin, @forthekidsg

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