Get out of the way! – Independent Play and why it is essential to children’s development

As modern parents we often feel that we should be engaging with our children as much as possible, filling every moment with talk and activity designed to help our child learn and develop. We have been told many times of the importance of talking frequently with our children and providing enriching environments for them to experience, but these ideas are based upon educational studies where children have no access to an interested adult role model. What is frequently ignored is the importance of independent play, the opportunity for children to lead their own learning and to focus deeply on their play without being interrupted by an unwelcome, but well-meaning, adult. It is also highly desirable for the adult in charge to be able to go about their day and not spend huge amounts of time on the floor playing with bits of plastic!

As a teacher of twenty years and advisor, I have had experience of a huge range of educational environments. I have been fortunate to be able to spend time in many schools in the UK as well as schools in Italy, the Netherlands and Canada. I have seen a very diverse range of teaching styles and learning environments and have met and taught many different children, with an enormous range of needs and capabilities. In every case, the most successful learning environments were those managed by experienced adults who understood the importance of child-led learning and had the confidence to trust the child’s self-motivation to learn.

The opportunity to learn through play is especially crucial to the under 7 age group. Globally, the most successful education systems do not start formal schooling for children under 7; indeed in 88% of the world the start of formal learning begins at 6 or 7 ( source Sue Palmer – Upstart- The Case For Raising The School Starting Age And Providing What The Under 7’s Really Need) ) . But we must not assume that formal education, which dictates a set curriculum, is the optimum way of learning for older children- there are now many studies which show that letting our children lead their own learning is crucial in developing a lifelong love of learning and the self-motivation to explore and investigate to gain deeper knowledge.

The successful learning environment creates as many opportunities as possible for independent play, allowing the children to lead their own learning and have autonomy over what and how they learn. This applies just as much to learning at home as learning in a more formal setting. In the context of Homeschooling during COVID 19, this is even more important, and desirable, for both the adults in the home and the children.

Independent play is essential for the development of every child. During periods of focused, uninterrupted play the child is able to develop their sense of self, their coordination and their creativity. The ability to concentrate is developed during independent play and is a key ‘muscle’ for lifelong love of learning. The ability to place knowledge into context and make connections is a vital life skill which is only developed through free, exploratative play and self- directed learning.

An article written recently by William Rankin on the importance of these skills, and their lack in many schools, highlights how the most important skills for the future are the ability to assess and discern, make (synthesise) and apply, rather than the ability to store and read lots of information- a skill at which computers excel.

What the world needs moving forward — and this is especially clear as the novel Corona virus burns off what’s irrelevant — is people who can apply information to meaningful contexts to create serviceable knowledge and solutions’

To put this into context, the lower two levels of the DIKW pyramid are what are predominantly focused on by most schools, tasks easily accomplished by computers and machines. Yet the upper two levels are the most essential to raising children who have the motivation to learn and the ability to work cooperatively and make connections in their learning. These upper two levels cannot be accomplished by machines and are areas in which people can excel.

Within the context of homeschooling, during COVID 19, it pays to remember that children develop knowledge and wisdom through uninterrupted play in an environment which provides resources to explore and enjoy. The successful ‘teacher’ ( in most cases the parent) understands when to provide input, in the form of materials to explore or answers to children’s questions, and when to stand back and allow the child uninterrupted play.

We like to stimulate interest and focus through setting out ‘invitations to play’ – (‘strewing’ as it is known in North America). These can be anything the child has expressed an interest in or materials which can be explored and potentially spark a new line of enquiry in the child’s mind. These are usually set up at night, after bedtime, and our children delight in seeing what has been put out in the morning. They will often play for hours using what has been assembled or may take little interest- in which case, we then modify what will be put out next.

Some examples of ‘invitations to play’ –

shelves set out as a kitchen area
recipes for smoothies
sensory play with rice
containers left out filled with water for ice sensory play
salad ingredients
a basket of mixed treasures
Lego left on a padded mat invites construction
instruction manuals for kitchen appliances ( our oldest son’s favourite thing to read at the moment !)
moving the kitchen area into our real kitchen and allowing the boys to help themselves from our safer kitchen cupboards
threading feathers and pipe cleaners in a colander
threading with spaghetti
chalks left for little hands to discover
old coffee filters and felt tips for an exploration of chromatography

During these extraordinary times, create as many opportunities for uninterrupted play as possible, and let your children amaze you as you share their delight in learning. Have the confidence to trust in their inborn instincts to learn and flourish, and enjoy a lovely sit down and cup of tea whilst they are about it !

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