Why unsupervised play benefits children
"Play is the most efficient driver of learning for children. This is as true of their cognitive development as their physical and emotional development." These statements introduce a chapter on remembering to play in Teach Your Children Well, by child psychologist Dr Madeline Levine.
She outlines the concept through a "time wheel": a pie-chart of a child's 24-hour day. There are fixed wedges of time each day for school, homework, meals and sleep. Whatever is left over is that "sliver of time" which is at the discretion of parents. We should fill up that sliver with fun activities, right? Wrong.
She argues that any activity that corrects, criticises or judges a child's behaviour is stressful and not fun. Splashing around in the pool is not the same as going to swim class where a coach is telling the child to swim faster or learn new skills. When a child is expected to be on their best behaviour for most activities on the time wheel, that sliver of free time had better truly be free.
Dr Levine writes: "We all know that some of our best work is done when no one is watching, when we feel free to be flexible and creative. Make sure your child has time to explore and create and learn without the pressure of constant scrutiny and evaluation."
Naturally there are children who love to have every hour of their day filled with stimulating activities. There are also children who love to have French fries and chocolate bars with every meal. Ultimately, parents have the final say as what to put into that sliver on the time wheel.
Dr Levine cites the example of two boys chasing each other around the playground during recess. "While this may look simply like a good way to burn off energy and calories - which is enough to recommend it - it is also a highly sophisticated social transaction. In order for the game to continue, each boy has to be willing to be both the chaser and the chased … This ability to play reciprocally is a powerful predictor of academic success, as is the ability to empathise and cooperate."
I remind myself that not every moment of a child's day needs to be educative, and try to let my children enjoy activities that are non-judgmental and not specifically focused on building skills. For my children, this means playing with sofa cushions and random household objects. It also means enjoying read-aloud time with books that are beautifully created but have with little educative value.
It's Useful to Have a Duck is a flip book by Isol, a children's picture book creator from Argentina and recipient of the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. After reading what the boy thinks about his duck, simply flip the book to enjoy mirrored illustrations from the duck's perspective.
Canadian author Sara O'Leary has created a charming series, The Henry Books, beginning with When You Were Small. It is filled with whimsical replies, artfully illustrated, to a young boy's request to his father, "Tell me about when I was small".
Supposing… by Alastair Reid is a seemingly straightforward book setting out a child-like supposition on every page: "Supposing I had a twin brother but we never told anyone and only went to school half the time each ..."
Reid wrote the text in 1960, and acclaimed illustrator Bob Gill recently added new illustrations to create a masterpiece that can spark the imagination of young readers when they come up with their own scenarios.
Ideally, they would be writing and illustrating their own scenarios during unstructured playtime.
Annie Ho is board chair of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong (bringmeabook.org.hk), a leading advocate for family literacy