Child-led anything is quite a foreign concept in Singapore. Over here parents have difficulty conceding control of most aspects of a child’s life to the child, even when it comes to their play. I often feel frustrated at the playground when other parents intervene when my children are playing freely by telling them what they should, or should not do, or even if they had noble intentions in helping them climb difficult structures. There is a reason I am sitting afar observing – I’m not being a reckless parent. The playground is the one place that should really be free of adults and children free to do anything they desire. It is an ideal place to learn independence, take risks and be immersed in make-believe.
Since my kids are still fairly little (3 and 1 years old), I don’t actually plan to introduce any formal ways of learning at home until they are 6. It would have been preferable to postpone till age 7 as this Stanford study suggests. Of course I get lots of naysayers: This is Singapore, it’s competitive, you can’t expect kids to take their own time learning, get real. The short-term effects of adult-led methods of teaching child to read, do simple sums and write before they are truly ready may prove successful in the short-term but have little or no long-term benefits. Some studies also show that it may prove harmful. Besides what is the point if a child can read a book at 3 years old but has yet learnt to use the toilet independently: doesn’t anyone think this is highly odd that before a child can have mastery over their physical body, they are pushed to excel academically.
But if you are like me and you’re interested in ways to encourage your child to play and learn independently, how can you do this at home?
The environment is first and foremost most important to invite and draw a child in to play and tinker around. How you arrange your play spaces, whether at home or outdoors, is crucial in inviting your child to play. I think most play spaces and even kindergartens are too cluttered and tend to over-decorate their space with colourful ornaments and plastic toys. I feel that this drives away creativity and imagination rather than inspire it. There’s an excellent, excellent article about Reggio classrooms and how they treat the environment as a third teacher.
This will probably drive lots of OCD parents crazy but I put out all our art supplies on their Ikea Flisat tables, to encourage my kids to create as and when inspiration hits them.
I also have a corner where I arrange their building blocks of various types and sizes and animal figurines in containers and crates, and a little cushioned mat is laid out just in front to invite them to build and create small play worlds.
We also have another corner where we have a table with a light panel. Underneath the table are containers of light table-related loose parts and accessories that are arranged in wicker baskets and see-through containers.
I’ve also fully made use of the corridor in front of my home. I place their sandbox and water-buckets there if they wanted to do some sand-and-water play, and we are in the midst of building a little garden too.
Without any prompt from me everyday, my kids set out on their own and take charge of their own learning in the play spaces I have created for them at home and even along our corridor. I particularly enjoy when our next-door neighbors see the girls play along the corridor and join in. The aesthetics of the play space is therefore really important. A beautiful, calm and natural space is inviting for play whereas a colourful and cluttered space is less inviting. A child can get lost in play for hours when they enjoy the space.
It is just as important to engage children in cooking, gardening and household chores like laundry washing, sweeping, and dish-washing as early as 2 years old or when they are show interest in helping. Not only do you get the benefit of the extra help at home, but these are very effective ways to nurture important life-long skills and make meaningful connections between Math, literacy, Science and everyday activities. For example, asking them to pack grocery bags is an excellent way to learn about volume, maybe even more effective than playing with contextless glass beakers and water.
These are a just a few examples you can make parts of your home inviting for your child to initiate their own learning.
It is hard to believe but when you make accessible picture story books, Math-driven toys, or a moveable alphabets box, a child actually learns Math and literacy on their own and at their own pace. If you would like more specific themes for the child to explore, you can also set out invitation-to-play trays. The Imagination Tree has endless ideas on creating invitations to play.
After children are done playing, and sometimes it can be as short as 15 minutes, engage them in conversation about what they have created or tinkered and the interesting things they discovered during play-time. This is the time you would introduce more formal Mathematical, literacy or scientific concepts. For example, Livia struggles to tie her shoe-laces and she would tell me she wants to make a butterfly, and its then I inform her that you are exactly right, you mean you want to tie a knot because it looks like the shape of a butterfly. She obviously have been thinking about knot-tying for sometime but she didn’t know how to express it in clear terms and that’s where adults come in to help clarify ideas more concretely for children. Other times after hours dabbling with Lego, Livia would proudly show me the intricate structures she has built and this would be an opportune moment for me to engage her in conversation about 3d renderings of shape, colours and measurements of height.
When kids enjoy playing, learning takes much more effortlessly and efficaciously, and it makes a more impactful imprint in their memories compared to trying to understand the same ideas from assessment books.
Below are some well-written articles highlighting the benefits of backing off from a child’s play for further reading: