Child’s play: experts warn parents not to forget free-play

Traditional forms of kids' play are at risk of being lost in favour of the all-singing, all-dancing structured play centres in the UAE.
Nicki Houston’s twins, Jaida and Kenna, play at their home. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
Nicki Houston’s twins, Jaida and Kenna, play at their home. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

There’s no shortage of all-­singing, all-dancing educational play centres in the UAE, but as traditional forms of play are at risk of taking a permanent back seat, experts are warning parents not to forget the importance of so-called free play.

As the act of playing becomes a booming industry, large-scale structured centres now offer ever more inventive and varied ways for children to play.

KidZania at The Dubai Mall, for example, allows children to “work” as firemen, doctors, dentists, journalists, beauticians or police officers, and get paid for it.

According to the centre’s website, the “very realistic” educational environment gives children ages 4 to 16 the chance to “do what comes naturally to them; role-playing by mimicking activities done by adults in real life”.

But is this really what comes naturally to children?

Experts have identified two main types of play. Structured play, which targets a certain set of skills, such as language or fine motor, and allows children to strengthen and grow them. Free play, considered to be the more traditional form, is essentially just letting children do what they want, when they want and for how long they want.

Dr Rose Logan, a British-­licensed clinical psychologist at LightHouse Arabia in Dubai, says the latter offers children a valuable opportunity to develop social, affective and executive functions, as well as their motor and speech skills.

“Free play encourages the development of self-regulation, problem-solving, frustration tolerance, self-efficacy, independence, emotional maturity and social bonds,” she says. “Many of these are actually better predictors of school readiness than IQ.”

The general consensus among child educators and psychologists is that levels of free play have sunk to an all-time low. On top of increasing pressures on young children to achieve academically with more homework, after-school clubs and the like, there are more distractions – television, films, toys, computer games – all chipping into play time.

Play itself has become an industry, Dr Logan says, and an industry needs to make money.

“Toys have become far more flashy and noisy, but more disposable. They are often more restrictive in terms of how children are encouraged to engage with creativity, imagination and curiosity.”

Too much emphasis on developmental milestones, albeit from parents with good intentions, can also direct play away from free play.

“I think free play has declined, but parents are now more aware of the benefits of free play, which is why there are so many parks, soft-play areas and splash parks that facilitate free play,” Dr ­Logan says.

An article in a 2011 edition of the American Journal of Play goes as far as making a connection between the decline in children’s free play with other children and a decline in the mental health of children and adolescents.

The author Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College and author of the Psychology textbook, defines free play as “freely chosen and directed by the participants”, not adult-directed activities.

He says that since the mid-20th ­century, the amount of children’s free play has been constantly declining as adults exert more and more control over children’s activities.

Gray concedes that the correlation between play and mental health doesn’t necessarily prove causation (that one factor is a ­direct result of another), but says a “strong case” can be made.

Referring to data compiled by Jean Twenge, another psychologist, Gray says a shift from intrinsic goals towards extrinsic values could explain the generational rise in anxiety, depression, suicide and feelings of helplessness or narcissism in children and young people.

Developing competence at an activity that one enjoys, making friends, finding meaning in life and pursuing a heartfelt religious path are examples of ­intrinsic goals, Gray writes. Getting good marks in school, making money, looking good to others and achieving a high status are extrinsic goals.

“A world that acknowledges the value of children’s play and ­allows it to happen is a world that says: ‘Yes, it’s OK to do what you want to do, OK to pursue intrinsic goals.’ A world that orients children towards building grade-point averages and résumés for uncertain future gain is a world that says, in effect: ‘Life is a chore, you are always striving for something in the future; you are not even quite sure what it is that you are striving for or why, and you have no guarantee of achieving it’.”

A 2014 study by the market research company Ipsos Abu Dhabi, commissioned by Fun City entertainment centres, showed that children in the region spend less than 4 per cent of their free time on creative activities, but 16 per cent watching television and 8 per cent on academic ­activities.

As with toys, play has become a serious industry. Abu Dhabi’s Yas Mall houses a 6,300-square-­metre family entertainment centre, which has adventure rides, a large soft play area, toddler playgrounds and learning workshops.

Other similar centres are dotted around the Emirates, and more pop up every year.

Dr Logan says that while these sorts of settings can provide an environment where children can play freely, they should not be the only sources of play.

“Things like role-play and imagination are key components of play and places like ­KidZania definitely facilitate these,” she says. “The negatives may be linked to extrinsic goals, whereby children compete to ... do the most jobs without really pausing to have fun and explore the ­possibilities.”

Children need little more than kitchen pots, cushions, sheets and Play-Doh to have productive play, Dr Logan says. “Anything that you have in your house, your child will find a way to play with if you give them the space to do so. The biggest barrier is probably over-scheduling children with clubs, classes, after-school activities, etc.”

Nicki Houston, a mother of 3-year-old twins, Jaida and Kenna, is a huge proponent of free play. “Kids need time to give their minds a break from all the day-to-day pressure ... free play allows kids the chance to just be kids,” she says.

“Free play allows for greater imagination and innovation. Our front room is structured to give the girls plenty of room to play – they can build forts, cool in ‘their’ kitchen, play Lego or Play-Doh, and if they want to dance, we just turn on the music.”

The Abu Dhabi-based working mum says she also sees value in the structured play centres, especially in the UAE. “The play areas are great, especially in the heat, but if a child gets too used to them as the norm, then their balls and little kid pool at home will become boring. My approach is everything in ­moderation.”

Danielle Wilson Naqvi, the co-founder of the Sassy Mama website ( and mum to Amara, 3, and twins Rio and Sienna, 2, agrees with Houston, saying she too works hard to strike a balance in the types of play her children ­engage in.

“Everything in moderation,” she says. “I don’t go to a play area every day, as I like the kids to play at home and in the garden, but I think letting them run around and have fun with no one telling them not to do something is great for them.”

Naqvi’s favourite play centre is the Cheeky Monkeys Playland at the J3 Mall in Umm Suqeim. It has an arts-and-crafts garden, Lego station, kids’ salon, soft play and gym. At home, she encourages free play, and says her eldest daughter often engages her younger siblings in imaginary play and role-play or playing hide and seek and building dens.

“When I was a kid, my parents always let us free-play at home or they would take us to parks and the beach to run wild,” she says. “I think life is all about balance, whatever age your children are. I’m sure when my children are slightly older they will need to be more stimulated, especially if they have homework to do, but I would encourage kids to be outdoors if the weather permits.”

And while it all may seem like child’s play, we must remember that it’s the early years that shape our children’s lives.

Published: July 30, 2015 04:00 AM


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