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The Importance of Free play and Messy play

How can we make our children better learners?

free play

By Rachel Nahmias

We support children to have a well-balanced life that includes good learning opportunities, social interactions, sports, hobbies and free play time.

Did you know the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has recognised play as a right of every child?

This recognition followed research done indicating the necessity of play for children’s growth and development. We often allow young children to have the free time to play, however, as they start to grow we tend to reduce their free playtime dramatically due to their academic requirements, hobbies or their wish for screen time.

In order to explore the benefits of play, first let’s try and understand what Free Play is all about.

Children first experience play when they are infants. This play is purely based on social interactions – sounds, minimal physical movements, facial expressions, gestures and eye gazing.

Although these experiences seem mainly physical, they have a crucial effect on their physical development, as well as on their social and emotional development.

Even such a primary act as being cradled and rocked teaches the infant about their body boundaries and their relationship to their environment.

Social play is also called Free Play and is crucial for the building of the schemas of interactions and relationship with both others and with the environment. While Free Playing children learn to initiate, maintain, terminate and avoid interactions. Through this process of play they will learn to regulate and get regulated. This ongoing process will allow the development of a good level of self-awareness.

In order to give children the opportunities to develop their self-awareness, they will also need to explore objects and raw materials in a free and unrestricted way. Materials such as sand, water, paint and mud. They will do so first on their own and as they grow they will explore and play together with their friends. While exploring these materials, sensory experience takes place, which promotes a growing understanding of how things feel, taste and smell. This is an important step in the physical development of children.

This type of experience is also called Messy play. It is the kind of play that is self-chosen, experimental, often uncontained and full of essential sensory feedback that helps understand how we fit into the physical world around us. It is the kind of play you can see young children often do in muddy puddles, in the bath or in the kitchen. This can show them how they can experience the physical world in a way that enhances their sense of self. It allows them to develop an understanding of their own body and its capabilities so that they can begin to interact with and relate to others as they develop as social beings. 

Children often go back to this type of playing in order to better understand their self, others and their environment.

The sensory experience also has an important role in the development of the child’s brain growth.  The nervous system is bidirectional – it sends messages from the outer world through our sensory nerves to the spine and then up to the skull-to the brain. And in reverse, energy and info also flows from the skull-brain to the spine, heart and gut.

It is through the messages the senses send through the spine and the brain that  new neural pathways to be created, and existing ones can be strengthened. These pathways are crucial for all types of learning that children will need in their future, from self-regulation, through social learning to academic learning. While enough experiences of play would lead to a good nervous system and ability to learn, lack of play would lead to the opposite.

A child’s brain continues to develop until the age of 25! It is important to provide our children with enough free time to play, interact and experience in order to strengthen the neural pathways of imagination, creativity, and social interactions. Maintaining children’s opportunities to free play both individually and with others will assist the well-balanced development of their physical, social, emotional and academic abilities.

play play play play

*For further information about the value of play – please watch a related TED Talks video.

** For references regarding this article please feel free to email me.