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Free play is serious business

Last week, my six-year-old daughter was searching for her friend in the park of our apartment complex in Bengaluru and found that he was missing in action. We found out that his evenings were not free anymore because he had a host of classes planned throughout the week—abacus on Mondays, chess on Tuesdays, music on Wednesdays and so on. He was also about to start his fifth year of school, which, as many parents tell me, is crucial. So, he had enrolled in tuition classes that covered all subjects: mathematics, environmental science, English and Kannada. This surprised me, seeing as we bring out our exam battle armours only well into the ninth year of school. So, why all the hurry?

Being a parent in the 21st century is about constantly revising your world views and trying to maintain a sense of balance. However, even the most open-minded parent would be aghast to see the academic pressure heaped upon children these days and the monumental increase in the number of hours spent at school. 

Some schools have exams right from kindergarten. A few schools in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh start coaching for admissions into the Indian Institutes of Technology—for an undergraduate course—in Class IV. Children set out for school at 7.25am and return as late as 4pm. “The amount of syllabus being forced upon children, we will soon have 10 GB chip inserted into their brains,” someone quipped recently.

But jokes aside, this is a serious, serious problem because it leaves no room for play—which does, indeed, make Jack a dull boy. 

Indian children spend an inordinate amount of time in school. According to a 2009 study by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the average Class VIII student in India spent 130 hours more in school than her peers in other advanced countries. What was worrisome about this trend was that Arne Duncan, the then US education secretary, said US students were at a “competitive disadvantage” as they stayed fewer hours in school. In other words, Duncan advocated longer school hours.

In contrast, Finland has significantly shorter school days (at roughly five hours), no ranking system, lot of play, little homework. And yet, the country has seen significant long-term performance from their students—helping it routinely top rankings of global education systems. The US does not figure on this list.

One of my friends, a special educator who uses many strands of free play in her lessons, told me that when she once asked her students to just stop studying and play, they were stumped. They just did not know how to go about playing with anything they could lay their hands on, or even improvise. They asked for a game with rules and structure. 

This is a bit of a shock, considering children naturally find a way to play with whatever they have at hand—cups become turtles, rags turn into flying carpets and, in the case of my daughter, a throwaway USB cable became a world-famous gymnast.

In Koramangala and Malleswaram in Bengaluru, I have seen well-regulated neigh-bourhoods that restrict vehicles on their premises as they want to encourage free play for the children. But for the most part, the lack of open and safe places is undercutting free play, as we know it. And, at the same time, structured classes—such as music, dance and drama, while undoubtedly fun and enriching—cannot compensate for free, unstructured and unbridled play. 

So, what is free play and why are children in our country losing touch with such a vital, self-regenerative skill?

Why is it important?

I didn’t realize just how important free play was until I saw this remarkable TED Talk by Dr Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology in Boston College and one of the most influential researchers on free play. Gray’s research has shown some startling results—that a decline in play has led to a well-documented increase in depression and other serious mental health implications during teenage and adult years. 

Gray is not alone: LEGO, a brand that gets both children and adults to sit down and play, is making serious headway in terms of research. In 2015, LEGO opened a Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) at the University of Cambridge.

One of PEDAL’s researchers, Dr. David Whitebread, studied why a playful stimulus is far more powerful than an instructional one. He found that this approach could even be successfully applied to something that most children dislike—writing. 

Other research from the University of Lethridge in Alberta, Canada, points to how free play is more important for brain development than studying, because it triggers crucial changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood. 

In particular, free outdoor play sharpens a child’s survival instinct, something that Gray calls “the hunter gatherer instinct” but with the decline of outdoor play, children are losing this crucial evolutionary skill. 

There is one major difference—and it matters a great deal—that sets free play apart from organized classes like football coaching, drama workshops, or dance classes. It is the feeling of control that a child feels when engaged in free play—something that they can never derive in structured play when being rallied around by a coach—and this has a therapeutic effect. 

Gayathri Ananth, a child psychologist, play therapist and a master practitioner of Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), says, “Children don’t get readymade answers and play is a way of discovering these answers for themselves. They create their own scene, set their own rules within the framework of the world they create.” 

Play-based curriculum

One of the hottest topics in early education in America is the emergent curriculum. Most mainstream education tries to fit children into its structure. In an emergent curriculum, teachers plan the curriculum, including activities and projects, based on the children in the classroom and their interests. 

Naturally, the entire process pivots on free play and how it can be used meaningfully. Research points to how free play is more important for brain development than studying, because it triggers crucial changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood. 

Schools are trying to weave play into their curriculums in many ways. One of the biggest believers in free play, the Waldorf pedagogy founded by Rudolf Steiner, gives children ample opportunities for both free and structured play, and reading and writing are given importance only after age 7 or 8. 

Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Pune have Waldorf schools that have become popular among parents. Jyotsna Mandana, one of the teachers at Promise Centre, a Waldorf kindergarten in Bengaluru, says, “In Waldorf education, we use a lot of toys made out of natural material. A child may spend hours playing with a cardboard box or a wrapper. Children spend a lot of time outdoors and even climb trees and buildings. The transformative power of play is so amazing that children not only learn language comprehension and coping mechanisms but are interacting with other human beings and are developing empathy.” 

Preethi Vickram, founder of the Leadership Initiative for Educators (LIFE), which focuses on educational leadership and organisational cultures, is helming the LIFE Conference in Bengaluru in May 2017. The conference will address emerging trends in early childhood education and will have lots of workshops on the emergent curriculum. 

“We plan to design the conference layout in such a way that teachers will have to ‘play’ games and puzzles to get into the rooms,” Vickram says. “This make teachers understand how play works and why it should find a place in curriculum. We will also discuss how the teacher can make sure that while being creative, all the important learning goals and milestones of the year are accomplished.” 

Vickram has written two papers, one on Humour in Early Childhood and another on about Leadership Development in Children using Superhero Play. She hopes that the LIFE conference in Bengaluru will inspire more original research on childhood and early years’ education in India, an area that she feels is sorely lacking in study or documentation.

Fourteen-year-old Adya Satapathy could signal a change. Satapathy studies in Greenwood High in Bengaluru and is also the Youth Wing Leader of an NGO called Anvaya Foundation. As part of her IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) syllabus, Adya was required to pursue original research. While her peers searched for topics on the Internet, Adya decided to study a phenomenon in her own apartment complex—the decline of outdoor time, play and exercise among other adolescents and teenagers. 

“I noticed that around the age of 12, or 13, people stopped coming out to play. Out of all the children in our apartment, 20% would come out every day, regardless of exams. Around 50% came out only for half-an-hour during normal days and never at all during exam days. Around 30% would never come out and were busy with preparation for IIT or SATs, so I would only see them rarely. In my paper, I study the effect of too much stress on the brain, and how being outdoors can address this.” 

Though, as parents, we are constantly witnessing the shape-shifting nature of research, Nivedita Rajan, mother to a four-year-old son, says, “A structured activity gives a child a sense of purpose, a discipline to finish what’s been assigned. Free play comes in when the child is alone to make of it what he/she wishes, whatever they’ve learned. It has to be a good mix of both and agreed upon by child and parent.” 

School that ‘gamifies’ curriculum

A few years ago, my adult niece, who develops video games for a living, saw my toddler’s LEGO set and expressed childlike excitement to play with it, because it gave her an idea for a new game. Pottering around does have its benefits. 

Play-based learning takes on various forms, and the hottest one right now is ‘gamification’. In Bengaluru, a Reggio Emilia inspired school called Sparkling Mindz offers a game-based learning methodology as part of its curriculum. 

These are offline games, played in the school, using dice, boards, chippers, cards, board game characters and other interesting tools. To retain a sense of personal connection, all these games are played offline and get the children to engage in concepts. 

The school’s founder, Sreeja Iyer, heads a team that designs specific offline games to deliver learning to higher ages based on the curriculum and get children across ages to learn through that process. 

“It’s a pleasure to watch children learn complicated concepts while they have fun at the same time,” says Iyer. “It is quite counter-intuitive to all of us who grew up thinking learning is boring, but it works.”

Shweta Sharan is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru. In 2012, she started a Facebook community called Bangalore Schools, which has now grown to include more parents, teachers, education reporters, journalists, educationists and policymakers in the city.

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