Free Play Essential in Early Years Classroom

Last year, the Education Bureau of the HKSAR Government released the new Kindergarten Education Curriculum Guide which emphasises the importance of free play for children.

According to Dr Anna Hui Na-na, Associate Professor; Coordinator of BDSS First Year Experience, Department of Social & Behavioural Sciences; Member, Developmental Psychology Laboratory, City University of Hong Kong, free play is informal, unstructured and child-initiated activities that allow children to explore and experience in the environment around them, thus developing different kinds of skills.

Developing Diverse Skills

When children can play of their own will, they will be more relaxed and engaged in the process of learning,’ said Anna. ‘They also get to decide what to play, how to play and whom to play with. The decision-making process will help develop diverse skills, including planning, organisation, collaboration, communication and creativity, etc.’

Free play does not mean that teachers allow children to play on their own without intervening, according to Anna. Yet the right kind of intervention is not controlling children’s behaviour in order to manage the classroom; instead, teachers should intervene so as to facilitate learning.

‘For example, if you notice that a child is looking for a book, you should not leave him alone; Instead, you can approach the child and ask what he is going to read and why he chooses a particular book. You may also read together with the child and give him the right kind of input. When other childs see you
reading, they will probably come over and join, and you can start a child-initiated reading section.’

Observation Is Key

Anna said it was not difficult for teachers to stay back and allow children to play freely, as this is what they had been doing for children’s study reports and learning portfolios.

‘They should observe what the children are doing, and ask necessary questions to encourage children to think and practise what they have learnt. They should also take notes to record children’s achievements, learning behaviours, strengths and weaknesses,’ said Anna.

The new Kindergarten Education Curriculum Guide suggested half-day and full-day kindergartens arrange no less than 30 and 50 minutes every day respectively for children to participate in free play. Anna said many kindergartens had expressed that it was hard for them to achieve the goal.

‘Lack of time is the main concern, as the kindergartens have so much for children to do in class,’ said Anna.

Starting Free Play with Existing Resources

Free play can still be achieved, however, based on some existing practices that teachers have introduced in class, she continued.

‘Themed playing corners are ideal and good enough for teachers to let children play freely. They do not need to spend time preparing materials all over again.’

Anna continued that many kindergartens in Hong Kong have practised playful learning in class, such as role play, singing and storytelling. Those activities were in fact regarded as guided play, meaning that teachers allow children to play in different well-structured activities with rules and concrete learning goals.

‘Teachers can actually develop free play based on these activities by allowing children to take the initiative to start the play,’ said Anna.

Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale

Anna suggests kindergartens evaluate themselves based on the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale when they have doubts about the quality of the learning environment they provide for children.

The Scale provides comprehensive and detailed descriptions on an ideal learning environment which kindergartens should provide for children, according to Anna.

‘There are a lot of assessment areas related to free play. For example, the Scale proposes that teachers should provide sand and water in the classroom for children to play with. These two elements are actually essential if we want to nurture children who are texture-sensitive. Allowing children to explore these two elements freely facilitates their development of texture sensitivity in their own way and pace.’