Growing up in a suburban town of Mumbai, I can describe the most fun part of my childhood in a few words: Running around the apartment buildings with my friends. It started from running, then cycling and then evening walks with friends.

Why is Free Play important?

  1. Identity building – Kids who play freely without constant supervision and instructions are able to understand their choices in early ages and develop a sense of identity.
  2. Independent thinking – What happens when we give kids legos and blocks? They engage themselves and try to think of different ways to experiment. Free play develops opinions and kids are able to weave these opinions together and think for themselves. 
  3. Social skills – Free play is a low stake environment for kids to learn how to play with others and collaborate for a goal. 
  4. Emotional regulation – Free play in a safe environment gives kids opportunities to express and develop ways to regulate their emotions.

Let’s take a look at a fantastic example of free play and learning – 

Tezuka Architects built an oval kindergarten in Tachikawa, Japan. In my research of innovative learning spaces, the Fuji Kindergarten stood out for its focus on children and their needs. 

 These four foundational decisions taken at Fuji Kindergarten piqued my interest:

  1. Freedom of movement: While most schools restrict movement and create boundaries, Fuji Kindergarten was built to empower movement. With all safety tools in place, the school has been built as an oval building with a roof area which doubles as a playground. Children can run, climb trees and learn at the same time. 
  1. Open classrooms: In good weather, classrooms open to the playground. While some children are learning, there is ample background noise. While we wonder if this background noise might be disruptive, research has proven that children thrive in environments that are naturally ambient versus the silent physical boxes that are called classrooms. Another great feature of open classrooms was movable furniture that is shifted every few months leading to changing learning space designed by the students for the students. 
  1. Autonomy: Given the shape of the roof area and classrooms, children are given autonomy to choose their activities. There are trees with safety nets, slides, movable furniture and much more. Keeping safety as the key, the structure gives children autonomy and an opportunity to discover continuously. 
  1. Integration with nature: At Fuji Kindergarten, children interact with nature often. There are gargoyles installed to harvest rainwater. Children get plenty of sunlight with skylights in each classroom. The school was built to accommodate the Zelkova trees and use the entirety of the tree as a playing area. 

How might we adapt innovative practices like the ones at Fuji Kindergarten in our context? Let’s take a look at a few ideas:

  1. Build for you: Your learning/working space is sacred and needs your complete attention. Design it keeping in mind what inspires you to keep going. I designed my work space by reflecting on these choices:
    1. I love corners and need light.
    2. I love being surrounded by books and stationaries.
    3. I am a daydreamer who needs a window to stare out to think and ponder. 
  1. Move, work and move some more: There are tons of time management/productivity hacks out there and most have movement as a common break. Research has pointed out the neurological advantages of moving and it is highly recommended for innovation and better outcomes. Some tips that work for me:
    1. Keep the phone a few steps away. This one was a life-changer!
    2. Walking meetings are a lifesaver. Can I get a hallelujah!
    3. Take your laptop outside if you can. You might be able to work better with the white noise. 
  1. Activity time: Another big takeaway from the design of the school was the aspect of ‘free play’. As adults, our workspaces are constrained and limit our productivity. While the work might not accommodate activity time, after work surely can. 
    1. Pick your favorite activity. It would be HIIT, yoga, walking or anything of your choice. Set a schedule and follow it diligently. 

Unlearning Thought of the day!

What is your version of free play that brings you joy?