Free play is an important skill for parents and kids

After-school activities are essential for children, but parents must take care to discern their interests. 

By Samai Singh

Have you been wondering whether the school curriculum is enough? Perhaps you’ve been thinking of enrolling your child in an after-school activity but confused about which one, or whether it’s even necessary? Read on to see just how important a role it may play in their overall development.

It was a simple comment made by my four-year-old, “I can’t draw.” Someone in her school had unwittingly said this to her and I suddenly felt the need to re-establish her confidence in her ability. At four, every child can draw, even Picasso famously said so. Shortly thereafter, I started taking her to a weekly art class where she has had the opportunity not just to draw but to paint on shoes, make coasters, paint on canvases and generally rediscover her love for colours. The leaps she has made in three months are remarkable. Painting and drawing are back on the top her list of favourite things to do.

The incident got me thinking about how small innocuous statements can totally ruin a child’s confidence. “You can’t play sports” or “you can’t sing or dance” are stereotypes that are drilled into kids at a very young age. And usually it is because children who are shy or reticent get no opportunities in a school environment where there are 40 other kids vying for attention. The question is, beyond the focus on academics from as early as three to four years of age, are our schools offering a well-rounded education to our kids?

The regular school curriculum, in the mainstream education system is focussed on academics. There is not enough “time” for emotional or physical development.

The truth is that emotional and physical development is not a priority because we have been trained to see our children as “a mind”, or as “an achiever”, not as a whole person. A whole person needs all parts of them attended to, for its intrinsic value, not because it adds up to some outer “achievement” that is applauded by the school or considered valuable by society. Our regular school curriculum is blinkered,” says Nupur Dhingra Paiva, author of Love & Rage—The Inner Worlds of Children.

“It seems that schools are failing to impart some of the most important skills. The curriculum today has been put on auto-pilot where no new challenges are thrown on the students. This means that students are not prepared mentally, emotionally, physically and cognitively to face the challenges that life would throw at them. The lack of practical approach in learning is largely missing,” adds Namrata Kaur, behaviour specialist and child counsellor. The answer is pretty obvious. Even the Delhi government has recently introduced a Happiness class for students in state-run schools to address the issues. So, what else can we do with our children and how significant is the role of after-school activities in bridging the gap?

The Right Choice

Coding, ballet, theatre, Lego, sports, storytelling, cooking—if there’s an activity or hobby you can think of, there’s probably a class out there offering it. There seems to be little doubt that after-school activities are essential in helping children suss out their likes and dislikes and find hobbies or sports that challenge them. The tricky part for parents is in discerning what lies in the interest of your offspring and not what you feel should interest them. “Sadly, most choices are made on the basis of peer consultation—which group of moms is sending their child, for what kind of after school activity,” says Paiva. You would be surprised how quickly the topic of conversation between mothers veers towards what activities you have enrolled your child in. The right activity for the child obviously depends on a variety of factors, including the cost (believe me, most are extremely expensive), timings and proximity from your residence but most importantly an activity should be age-appropriate. Paiva suggests, “Allow the child some freedom to explore, and to get the taste of an activity for a month or two. And then ask open-ended questions to gauge their interest.”

Striking a Balance

The number of activities to enroll your child in and how often, is also a balancing act—too many, too frequently and it will defeat the purpose of it being fun. Activities are meant to be enjoyable; running from one to the next with no time to process anything will defeat the purpose. “Engaging your child in too many activities can leave her tired and overwhelmed. Both over and under-stimulation has an impact on children. Reassess the situation at regular intervals to see if they become overtired or irritable. Going on alternate days will give them a chance to learn and also have some free time,” suggests Kaur.

“Over-scheduling is generally common because parents have been taught to devalue free play and/or believe they need to fill their child’s time with constructive structured learning task. But if we over-schedule the child’s time and activity, they will not learn how to simply ‘be’ by themselves. Kids need time for unstructured, imaginary play. It is more beneficial to their emotional well-being and their equilibrium,” says Paiva.

Free Play Benefits

In today’s action-packed schedules, we often forget the necessity for children to just be. So despite them being engaged in hobbies and sports, the experts are constantly stressing on the importance of free play. But how does one encourage this? Paiva suggests, “You leave a child in a room with their toys—figures, stuffed animals, utensils—and just sit with them. Say nothing. Say “let us play” and don’t make any suggestions.” Kaur adds, “The value of free play, daydreaming, risk-taking, and independent discovery is underestimated by parents who want their child to be the best from day one! Children who engage in more free play have more highly developed self-directed executive function.”

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