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Unicef finds Hong Kong parents value free play for their children (but don’t really know what it is)

Extracurricular classes don’t count, according to UN fund, and neither do computer games

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 March, 2018, 6:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 March, 2018, 8:50am

Almost all Hong Kong parents believe free play is important for young children, but an overwhelming majority do not properly understand the concept, according to a survey by Unicef.

Releasing the findings on Sunday, Jane Lau Yuk-yin, chief executive of Unicef’s Hong Kong committee, said that the group conducted an online survey last month on Hong Kong parents’ knowledge on free play for children.

Of 1,029 parents polled, 98 per cent said they believed free play is critical to early childhood development, and 99 per cent claimed their children had free play time. But Unicef – a fund for children which works under the UN – said researchers found 84 per cent of them misunderstood what free play was.

Dr Maggie Koong May-kay, chief principal of Causeway Bay Victoria Kindergarten and International Nursery, said a lot of parents wrongly think extracurricular activities – such as learning cycling and practising football – count as playing. But because youngsters do not guide themselves through such activities, she said, they are not free play.

“A lot of parents have the mindset that they are letting their children play through these activities, but the children have to listen and follow the instructors during these sessions,” she said.

A lot of parents have the mindset that they are letting their children play through these activities, but the children have to listen and follow the instructors during these sessions
Dr Maggie Koong May-kay

Among the 99 per cent of respondents who said their children got free play time, 56 per cent said that usually involved electronic devices, such as computer games and television. And Lau said that did not count as free play either, as it mainly involves children responding to instructions.

Her group encourages giving children at least an hour of free play, such as going to the playground, per day. To count as free play, she said, the activity has to be one that the child has the freedom to choose. She said playing with other children helps develop a child’s senses, communication and creativity. 

The survey found that parents with younger children were less likely to arrange activities based on what the child likes, with only 43 per cent doing so with children under one, compared with 64 per cent for those aged six to eight. Koong urged parents to give children more freedom to choose what they want to play. 

Lau also urged the government to improve facilities at playgrounds, after hearing from many parents that existing facilities are not fun. 

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She said she hoped corporations would introduce more family-friendly policies and flexibility to let parents have more time to play with children.

Mason Fung, a father of two children aged seven and four, said he and his wife would allow their children to decide what they want to play.

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“Most of our friends pack their children’s schedule with extracurricular activities and they will revise school work with their children after work,” he said.

But he and his wife did not want to put this pressure on their children, he said, adding that they just wanted their children to be able to study, without the need to get specific marks.