In many households playtime is often neglected due to other priorities, such as parents having to work long hours and academic pressures from school,  although it is provided for in Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children shall have time to rest and play and equal opportunities for cultural and artistic activities. In early childhood, playing should be the child’s main activity and is also an important factor in their education. In the past, many games, songs and activities were passed down from generation to generation and many of these wonderful traditions have been lost. Over the past two decades, the number of hour’s children spend in play, both at home and school, has decreased significantly. Many children spend hours watching television or playing computer games which does not engage them in a kinaesthetic way, using their entire bodies.

Playing is vital to a child’s development as it contributes to their cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being. It is mainly through playing that children to learn about the world. It involves the whole body as they are able to manipulate and touch different objects. Playing is often a very creative and social experience, giving children the opportunity to express themselves, both verbally and non-verbally, which helps to develop confidence, social skills, language and communication.  Unstructured playing helps children learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, lead and follow, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. It develops physical skills as children use their muscles and senses to move around (both gross and fine motor). Children make use of their differing senses in play and develop healthy, fit, and strong bodies. In addition, playing assists in connecting and refining pathways in a child’s brain. Without playing some children may feel stressed, anxious and depressed.

In this article, we will look at two main types of playing, namely structured or adult-led play, and unstructured or child-led play.

Structured or adult-led play is more organised, happens at a set time and is intentionally led by an adult. This type of play includes games which have clear rules or expectations. Examples of structured activities are: musical chairs, Simon Says, card games, toys with structured outcomes (a wind-up toy with rabbit which hops).

Unstructured or free play is playing that happens naturally, depending on what takes the interest of the child at that time. It is unscheduled and allows the child to use their imagination at their own pace. For example, a bed sheet could be a magic cloak, a secret tent or a comfy nest, while a stick could be a sword, a car, a celphone. 

Parents should be encouraged to:

  • Let their children play and discouraged them from the overuse of passive entertainment, such as television and computer games.
  • Buy or make toys, such as blocks, balls and corn-cob-dolls which encourage imaginative play rather than passive, expensive toys that have one purpose and require a limited use of their imagination.
  • Spend spontaneous time with their children, such as taking a walk to a local park or veld.
  • Play traditional games, dance and sing songs, such as Ring-a-ring a Rosy, Morabaraba/Mancala, Hop-Scotch, Kudoda, stocking-jumping/Gumi.
  • Vary the different types of play (playing in sand, looking at pictures in books/reading, dressing up in mom’s clothes, and making cheap play dough).

Educators should be encouraged to:

  • Support children having an academic schedule that is appropriately challenging and extracurricular activities  that offer appropriate balance;
  • Create environments that help foster the social and emotional developmental needs of children, not just academic;
  • Encourage  parents to make playtime a priority at home;
  • Start a resource file with ideas they can share with parents.