I think back to this experience as a reminder of how "free time" is often discouraged, even at such a young age. This is not to say that chaos should reign supreme at preschools and that teachers don't have their hands full. A level of order and cooperation is necessary, not just for keeping the classroom functional, but to help children develop important self-regulatory skills. But the expectation that a 2-year-old boy must sit through circle time rather than explore the joys of that enticing toy nearby seemed excessive.
It is hard to recall an era when children spent their free time exploring the outdoors and relying on their imagination, when scheduled activities, electronics, and structured learning didn't compete for their attention. Fort-building, tea parties and swashbuckling battles with sticks filled their time. But now, exploration is steeped with expectations that it will lead to further achievement and success. Even preschoolers have less free time, as they juggle pre-reading and pre-math with other formative "readiness" activities.
Yet, research is highlighting the importance of free time and unstructured play for all children, especially for preschool children. Why is free time so essential to a young child's development? Here are some recent findings:
1. Play "wires kids' brains for social and academic success." It contributes to changes in the prefontal cortex during childhood. These changes affect executive functioning and the ability to regulate emotions and solve problems. According to researcher Sergio Pellis, "plenty of so-called free play" is essential to this aspect of brain development.
2. Preschools may not be providing enough opportunity for physical activity, as seen in a recent study where children were most sedentary during teacher-led activities. "Based on their findings, the study authors recommend child-care centers allow for more child-initiated activities, either indoors or outdoors, along with an increase in outdoor time."
3. Studies cited by David Kohn demonstrate the problems associated with forcing young children to sit through academic instruction. In one study, children who had received teacher-led instruction during preschool performed worse academically when they reached fourth grade than those students who were allowed to engage in free play during preschool. Rather than helping, teacher-led instruction "may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress, and perhaps even souring kids' desire to learn." A blog post by Gwen Dewar also sums up additional research related to free play and child development, and points to the importance of recess, unstructured play, and time outdoors.
4. The importance of play in early childhood programs is also highlighted by Polakow-Suransky and Nager. They point out the misguided rush to engage in academic instruction, and the importance of free time. They recommend that preschool teachers remain involved by encouraging creative exploration, and by asking questions to enhance the children's work and help develop new thinking skills.
"As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time. It is so deeply formative for children that it must be at the core of our early childhood curriculum."While all children benefit from the "gift of free time," gifted children, in particular, thrive when they can freely engage in creative and unstructured activities. In a previous post, the importance of play was addressed, along with how it benefits gifted children. They hunger to learn, but forced instruction, especially at the preschool level, may be even less effective than for most children. Their advanced learning skills, heightened sensitivities, and often uneven social/emotional development may affect their adjustment to a traditional preschool setting. Boredom, impatience, distractibility, emotional reactivity and difficulty relating to peers are all warning signs of adjustment problems. Parents may need to advocate with their child's preschool, and additionally ensure that their child has plenty of opportunity for free-time, creative expression and exploration outside of school.
This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Free Time. To read more blogs in the hop, click on the following link: