Being Malaysian Chinese, and having a mother who was a straight 'A' student, driven, performance-oriented woman, giving me free time was always seen as her not doing her proper duty as a mother in making sure that I was learning. There was always a sense of guilt when I was left to do my own thing or left to watch TV.  I believe that my mother was not alone in this feeling of guilt.

Our Malaysian (Asian) culture feels so strongly that there are two proponents in a child's day - work and play, and both are separate and do not at any point intersect. So what parents do to ease the guilt is to send children to tuition classes, piano classes, ballet classes, art classes, computer classes (you get the idea) and pack their weeks to the brim with as much "learning" as possible so that they can gain knowledge, and then only allocate a small amount of guilt-free free time for them where usually it involves them lounging on the couch watching TV or on the iPad. I completely understand that. There is no judgment here. I grew up with this and this was how I used to think. While I do see how packing your child's day with classes can build self-discipline, structure and expose them to a variety of skills, I am starting to see that giving them free time can also build skills, foster learning, independence and build your child's creativity.

Being in the US has opened up my eyes to how "free time" can be viewed differently and how it can be set up to become a conducive and VITAL learning environment. I help out at a preschool here in San Francisco city and it has been such an eye-opening experience for me.  Granted, I did work at one of the most highly esteemed, most sought-after British based international pre-K to primary schools in Penang, the approach at this preschool here in San Francisco is so different.

The main difference is free play.

By free play, I mean the free time set up for the child to select activities of choice (with no set goal or task) with an allowance of it to evolve or change.

Play almost seems like a bad word in a Malaysian context. "Don't play" is used often to mean "Don't mess around, this is serious stuff."  However here in this preschool, play is put up on a pedestal and is esteemed as almost sacred. Most of their day is filled with a lot of free play.  Many stations are set up both in the classroom and outside. Children are not told what activity to do but can choose from a variety such as playing at the obstacle course on the cement set up by teachers, they could play on the slide and climbing play structure, they could take a book and have an adult read to them, they could visit the 'Creation Station' where each day different materials are put out that children can create with and chalkboards for drawing. There are monkey bars for climbing, a nice tree with a tree house attached to it, and the outdoors scattered with blocks, buckets, trucks, animals, shovels and a variety of different toys. Except for a short Circle Time, certain days a week Music and Movement, Expressive Arts, lunch and nap time, most of the children's day was filled with free time and play!

My first impression of the place was, "What!? These 4-year-olds just play all day?? They don't learn anything?" The Asian in me wanted to bust out the ABCs and the numbers and the worksheets put a pencil in their hand and get them started on their first research paper. I had heard about play as being important, I know the Australians who came to St Christopher's had very little pre-academic skills in place because they had spent the last 6 years of their lives playing, not writing. The Asians felt that they were behind and had a lot of catching up to do but a part of me knew that there must be strong reasons behind why they put such a strong emphasis on play in place in the child's early years. Flash forward to today, as I returned each week to this San Franciscan preschool, I began understanding reasons to the way the preschool environment was set up and what the school's priorities are. I began to see the vast learning that was taking place each day as these children manoeuvred around the school, carrying out different activities with one another.

I guess before I launch into these reasons, I'd like to ask us to take some time to ponder and list out, Why would play/free-time be beneficial to your child?

If you're struggling to come up with reasons, your reasons could not go past the fingers in one hand, that's okay. Again, no judgements here, this is new for me too.

Here are my discoveries and observations. I found that through free time and play, children learned to:

1) Make their own choices

Rather counter-cultural to us as in Malaysian culture, we make choices for them and expect them to submit. I understand that we are a culture that expects respect for parents and authority figures and children submitting to their parents is a form of respect. However, if we want to raise well-rounded children, there will be times when the child has to learn to submit and times the child has to learn to make their own choices. What better time for them to make their own choices and gain independent decision-making skills than during a leisurely play time. You can narrow it down to a few activities for them to choose from.

2) Communicate

This applies if your child is playing with others or if they are playing with you. Your child would be able to learn to make suggestions "Can we play with Legos after this?", give (polite) instructions "You stand over there and throw the ball to me". Whenever free time and play is with another human being, communication will be inevitable. If there is an adult in close range, this is also a great time for the adult to teach proper communication - how to speak politely to one another, how to use please and thank you, how to speak instead of to snatch. For individuals who are non-verbal, PECS or any communication device would be wonderful to use for them to communicate with adults and other peers.

3) Problem Solve

We all know that if we put two younger children in the same place to do their own thing, problems often arise. "It's mine! I had it first" is a common phrase we will hear. At the preschool in San Francisco, the teachers take every opportunity to NOT solve the problem FOR them, but to make suggestions to ways they can solve the problem amongst themselves. "It's mine! I took it first" can be followed by suggestions to problem solve like "Is there another toy that you can play with first?" (There may be two other shovels just behind but they didn't turn around to look), "Who can be first and who can be next?" Also if your child is alone, some children will seek out the adult when faced with the slightest problem. Some adults want that from their children or jump in to help before the child asks for help. But if you see it as a skill that your child is learning, to problem solve, to see their problems from different angles and to find a solution, then this is a very helpful skill to build in your child. Even children who are non-verbal, even those with developmental delays, can learn to problem solve simpler tasks given more time and a bit of support.

People from my parents' generation used to play with their neighbourhood kids in the taman (park) and learned to problem-solve from a very young age. Through it, I'm sure they learned many things, and I'm sure made beautiful memories they still tell about today.

4) Share, compromise, and advocate for themselves

This point is more for children playing in a group - not the solo flyers. Again breaking off from what was mentioned above, learning to share, compromise and advocate for one's self is VITAL when working in a team. Not everyone values the skill of learning to work in a team, but reflecting on life, collaboration is an everyday thing and it is such an important skill to have. I am an only child and I know that learning to share and a compromise was something I had to learn only outside of my home and one of the most valuable skills I continue to build. Advocating for one's self is an interesting concept I learned only during my short time here. Advocating for yourself means that you speak out when something is not done right towards you. Again, it may be very culturally different (though I have seen sometimes how Malaysians teach self-advocacy, to be passive-aggressive and "don't be their friend anymore"), but here I noticed they teach children to say, "I don't like that" when someone is doing something to them that they don't like. So let's say John keeps repeating a phrase over and over and over again to annoy Sam, here, they teach Sam to say "Stop, I don't like you saying that" and tell John to listen to Sam's words. It's not that your child has to stop being friends with that child who is annoying or made you upset, it's learning to communicate the things that make your child upset.

5) Use their imagination

Free time and play allow children to go into their own world. Imagination and the ability to dream is powerful. It births forth ideas and new things. Don't disregard an individual with a strong imagination, in fact, pay close attention to them. I realise that this would be an area of challenge for children on the Autism spectrum but it is not a dead end. Research by my professor Dr. Pamela Wolfberg, researcher and founder of the Integrated Play Groups® model shows that exposing individuals on the Autism Spectrum to other neuro-typical peers engaging in imaginative play expands their ability to become more advanced in their symbolic play. They may not seem to get it at first, but the more they watch and listen and engage, the more their ability expands.

6) Strengthen their creativity

Imagination and creativity go hand-in-hand. First, they imagine in their minds, then they create with whatever they have. At times as adults, we struggle to make sense of what they are doing, but before writing them off and saying, "What are you doing? This doesn't make any sense" try asking them to attempt to explain what they have created. Not every child will have the ability to put words to their ideas, but with encouragement, kind words and a safe environment, they will continue to create.

7) Allows them to unwind and relax from all the structure

As adults, we need time to be away from deadlines and meeting people's expectations. We love a leisurely Sunday afternoon of doing the things we love, be it as simple as washing and polishing the car, gardening, going for a walk, everyone has their own thing that they enjoy. Likewise with children, it is the same.

8) Allows children to be children

Some children in Malaysia have busier schedules than some of us adults. While I understand the need for that in certain situations, there also needs to be that space and time to be children. Let them be silly, imaginative, loud, maybe a little messy, because it is in those moments when they are learning and they are happy.

As mentioned above, some of these concepts may seem rather counter-cultural to some of you. I am in no way suggesting for you to take everything I say and run with it. My intention is to expose different ideas and what people are doing in different parts of the world so that you as parents can be well informed and have new ideas to consider for your child's life. Some of these concepts may seem challenging for a child with developmental delays or those on the Autism Spectrum to attain, but free play time will still be beneficial for them. In the next post, I will give a few suggestions for parents to help set up their child's free play time at home.

But let's face it, these are definitely skills that very few tuitions are able to teach.

Again, feel free to leave a question or comment and let me know other topics of interest for you. I hope that my learning will inspire your learning as well.

Let's learn together,

Eileen.

(Picture courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)