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Less is More: Children and Free Play

Child's Play

We came across an interesting study about how children play and which items seem to provide a better play experience. Many people would think that bigger and better toys would equate to a bigger and better play time, however this study found that children played more intensely with simple items such as crates, pipes, and buckets than they did with full playgrounds! These items that many would consider cheap everyday things seemed to open up the children’s imagination in ways that other clear-functioning toys or structures didn’t.

The two-year study, published in BMC Public Health, followed 120 students at a newly built Australian primary school. The children had multiple “cheap and everyday” avenues for play including exercise mats, hay bales, pipes and buckets. When comparing the behavior of these children to that of children at a nearby school who had more traditional play avenues such as swings, slides, and monkey bars the study showed striking results. The children who played with the mundane items played more energetically and profoundly than the children who played on the playground and sedentary behavior was reduced from 61.5% to 30.5%.

“Moveable/recycled materials are suggested to stimulate creativity and diversity to children’s play and provide active play experiences by facilitating pushing, pulling, and lifting and the construction of structures (e.g. houses, rockets, ships) whilst engaging in social interactions and problem solving.” (Hyndman et al., 2014).

The author of the study continues, “Unstructured, active play allows children to understand their world and develop skills, therefore school playground environments should be developed in a manner than enhances development and physical functioning of children.” (Hyndman et al., 2014)

Take into consideration the things that children, especially those in poor and developing countries, play with. Many times when Westerners come and visit these countries or families, they tend to look down on the “lack of” play items or toys that the children have. They think they need to supply teddy bears and trucks, necklaces and dress up clothes in order for the children to have the play experience they deserve. That may be appropriate in the U.S., but does that mean it is necessary in the jungles of South American? We encourage you, in light of this study, to consider the context of the children you care for and try your best to provide play items that supply the problem solving, social, and creativity skills their growing brains need…even if that is simply a bucket and a spoon.


This post is written by Stephanie Eitzen, a student studying Ministry to Orphans and Vulnerable Children at Austin Bible Institute.
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