So you want to let your child develop into an independent, creative thinker — but how and where? We went to some early-childhood specialists for answers…


At Republic Polytechnic’s Kinderland infant- and toddlercare facility, children are exploring free play with picking up various toys, in addition to climbing up and sliding down from an indoor loft.

Charlotte Wong (CW), senior manager at Kinderland, Rebecca Goh-Quek (RG), Kinderland education specialist, and Denise Wong (DW), Crestar marketing communications manager, fielded SmartParents’ questions on free play as the staff kept a close eye on the tots.

Where should you let kids just play freely?

CW: The thing is to provide them with a protected environment — ensure that there are no sharp corners, no dangerous wires, nothing that they can hurt themselves badly with — that’s important.

But it’s also vital to just be there for your child. To be near enough…but if they should fall, what harm will befall them? Is what they’re going to learn [from the fall or accident] a lot more beneficial than the harm?

As a parent, you adjust how close you need to be; for instance Kinderland’s infantcare area is padded and the toddlers’ loft is carpeted — your distance could be a bit further. Because if a parent is too near to the infant, the infant would be aware of it and won’t feel comfortable to explore. But if it is a totally new environment then, of course, my distance would be nearer.

“As parents, our role is to provide them with a lot of opportunities.”

That sounds contrary to every kiasu parent’s existence…

CW: It’s what [the kids are] going to learn — to stand up, help themselves back up. You must remember that by doing that, they can be independent! So, if they should fall outside when you’re not there — you cannot guarantee that you’re there all the time — then it’s a survival skill!

How do you know if your child is ready?

CW: If you observe a toddler who’s just starting to explore a climbing structure — some, more confident, may go up to the top. But another stays at the first step. That child doesn’t feel ready for the second step and up… As parents, I think we have to observe this. If the child is not comfortable or they are just exploring the new environment, let the child be. Do not push them by telling them “Go! Go! Go!” Give them time, they know their limits.

Of course if they’re trying to move further, give them some encouragement. Say things like, “Oh you want to try! Why don’t you give it a try?”

As parents, our role is to provide them with a lot of opportunities. So, if I’m a parent who just wants to stay indoors, then my child might not want to go outdoors and explore. But if I give my child many different opportunities — one day we try to roller blade then another day play ball…even if you’re not good at it, it’s fine.

Click on for tips on finding time to let junior play freely, and see what they can learn…


How do you find the time to just let your kid do this while “being close”?

DW: For example, as a working mum, if I want to bring my son to the park when I get home after work, I call home and tell my mum or my helper, “Can you make dinner earlier?” So, we’ll go scootering — rather, he scooters and I run behind — or on weekends, we’ll just play Frisbee or go swimming.

RG: If you have an infant or toddler, they’re much younger, so you don’t really have to go out of the house. You can go crawling around in the room or just play jumping games — all that is bonding, too, and it’s exploratory and exercise. It’s just 10 to 15 minutes a day. That’s all. Even bathing the child. You can talk to the child about, say, water — discuss what swimming in the sea is like…simple things that you can do at home with your child.

You say it’s also great for life skills?

CW: Making decisions, for instance. If you have two toys — don’t give them too many options, just give two — ask “which would you like?” It’s an exercise of choice. Gradually, they will learn to make choices in life. You start off with things that are definitely safe — for the child, it’s just choosing.

RGQ: [Later, as the child grows up, there situations like] my child was saying, “My friend did this when they were having tingxie in primary school. She copied from her friend.” So, my child had to think, “Is this the right way of doing it?”

When they are young, if they learn to make choices, they learn to make decisions, they weigh for themselves which is right and which is wrong, which path they should follow... Because when they are in Primary school, not all teachers and caregivers will always be around. They have to decide for themselves, “Is it right?” “Is it dangerous for me to do it?” “Should I follow my friend?” I think all this decision making is a small little milestone to build upon.

“It’s okay even if I fall, even if I fail. Especially the failing part, it’s okay!”

What else can a child learn when you let them explore more freely?

CW: They can learn an “I can do it” attitude and a “I want to try new things” attitude! Because if you keep going through life unwilling to try new things, unwilling to touch and take risks or take new challenges, then you won’t have that pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit, which could be something that your child might need in the future.

Another one would be, problem-solving, the ability to think outside the box, and be analytical and creative. Like, Steve Jobs started off just fixing things... So you want your children to have that kind of skills and that comes from exploring, making decisions on their own, trying new things. It’s okay even if I fall, even if I fail. Especially the failing part, it’s okay! If I make a model or something out of Lego and it drops and breaks. Okay, pick up and start again.

You mentioned learning responsibility and consequences?

Yes. We visited a childcare centre in the US and the children were 4 or 5 years old, and were setting the table with porcelain plates and glasses. We were shocked. At first, we were wondering to ourselves, “What will happen if it breaks?” then I realised, “Well if it breaks, it breaks. Then they will learn not to drop it.”

Every action has consequences. So, if they learn that early in life, they will think things through and process: “Okay, if I do this, this happens. If I do that, that happens. And I will make a decision...” So, that’s a very important skill!

Photo: iStock

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