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Free play encouraged for healthy children in Hong Kong

Parents in Hong Kong adore their children and want the best for them. A recent study by Unicef, however, has found that many don’t fully understand the concept of “free play” and the benefits it offers to kids. This week’s article by Pacific Prime Hong Kong outlines what free play truly means, and how you can feel safer as a parent letting your children engage in truly free activities.

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What is free play?

According to the Play and Playground Encyclopedia, “free play” refers to a unstructured, voluntary, self-led activity that allows children to explore and develop their imagination, experience environments, and engage their own enthusiasm for discovery. It can be as simple as a trip to the playground where they can climb trees, use playgrounds, or build things from blocks or clay – all without the direction and guidance of an adult.

The idea is that children need freedom to test their own knowledge and boundaries in order to gain confidence in themselves and the world around them. School and structured learning is important but so is the ability for children to take ownership for their own education. For younger children, creating their own imaginary adventure can support communication and creativity skills as they negotiate with other children the rules and direction of their journey. Older students can find similar benefits by playing in a band or music group, taking part in drama activities, or in simply exploring Hong Kong’s wilderness with friends.

The key here is that young people need the space to set the rules and direction of their learning themselves in order for the activity to count as free play. Violin lessons are structured; there’s a tutor that guides and facilitates the learning, often determining things right down to which piece of music is played. Even football or other team sports have a coach that determines the drills and strategy of the team the children are part of. Supporting your children to choose an unguided activity that interests them can really help support the many structured learning activities Hong Kong students engage with daily.

Why is there need for better understanding of free play in Hong Kong?

As mentioned, a Unicef study of 1,029 people found that 98% of parents believed that free play was integral to early childhood development. A further 99% claimed their children had free time, however researchers found the following interesting results:

  • 84% of parents actually misunderstood what free play meant
    • 56% of parents counted play on electronic devices (computer or TV)  as free play
  • 57% of parents with children under the age of one chose extracurricular activities without regard for their child’s interest, which only decreased to 36% for those with children between six and eight

Common misconceived “free play” activities included music tuition, instructed sports, playing video games or watching TV. Last year, an article in the SCMP highlighted that government figures had found that the number of children among total mental health patient numbers was increasing (as high as 5% annually). Mounting pressure to prep for tests and exams, as well as a lack of unstructured, outdoor time, was seen as being part of the problem.

What options are there for unstructured play in Hong Kong?

Using free play to support the mental and physical development of your children in Hong Kong doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. It doesn’t even need to be outside. Here are some of our handy tips for thinking about unstructured learning with your young children:

Indoor free play examples

  • Drawing, colouring, painting, or crafting, with creative ideas led by the child.
  • Reading material that is not part of the school curriculum or set as homework.
  • Dressing up, performing plays, or taking part in improvised roleplaying.
  • Exploring indoor playgrounds or fun parks (such as EpicLand in Discovery Bay).
  • Unstructured musical sessions; such as a band or improv sessions.
  • Exploring or researching a subject of their own interest.

Outdoor free play examples

  • Free exploration of parks, gardens, forests, beaches, and playgrounds.
  • Pick up games at parks or courts.
  • Child directed cycling or walking journeys.
  • Neighborhood exploration with friends.
  • Swimming without instruction.
  • Creating art using sidewalk chalk.
  • Photography.

What are the dangers involved with free play in Hong Kong?

With any activity, there’s a degree of risk involved. The reason we overload children with structured activities and play these days is because we believe it keeps them safe. A child is more likely to drown during an unstructured swim session than one with an instructor. Setting the route for a cycling trip is safer when done by an adult that can assess risky areas more readily. Unfortunately, sheltering young people from risk only makes them less able to deal with those same dangers when they’re older and you’re not there to supervise them.

What’s important is that you allow for freedom of choice in play while still maintaining a level of supervision that keeps them safe. For younger children, it might be that you restrict small Lego pieces from toddlers, or spend time teaching your child how to use scissors before letting them create their own collage out of magazines. Older children may appreciate the freedom to explore the neighborhood or country parks with their friends but, as a parent, you can still discuss safety expectations such as checking in with you via text and letting you know their plan before they leave the house.

What about the risk of injury, particularly related to outdoor activities?

Another reason for the decreasing outdoor time allowed for young Hong Kong children is that parents are often scared of injuries for the children. Falling out of a tree might break a bone, beaches might leave a child stung by a jellyfish, urban exploring means risking injury by one of Hong Kong’s speeding drivers, or they might just catch an illness from unsafe food or unsanitary places. When it comes to these things, the best protection you can have can be family medical insurance.

In the event that your child does sustain an injury or fall ill as a result of free play, having health insurance can help put you and your child’s minds at ease, knowing that adequate medical care is accessible. At Pacific Prime Hong Kong, our advisors can help you find a family medical insurance plan that can meet the expected and unexpected in Hong Kong. Many of our experts are parents themselves; and they know that, while free play is essential to developing resilient young learners, protecting children is an important step to encouraging unstructured learning.

For a free quote or some friendly advice, contact the team at Pacific Prime Hong Kong today.

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