Ask Amma

The Play School Dilemma

In How on 16 July 2013 at 3:58 pm

My son is 18 months old. I work as a free lance consultant and have a good support system at home. My husband and I have been thinking about playschool as our son loves physical activity and exploring new things and also interacting with other children.

What are your thoughts on play schools, the appropriate ages, what to look for in a good play school, its teachers etc?

Mama from Delhi

The neighbourhood is the appropriate place for an 18-month-old or really for any child who is looking for physical activity, new things to explore, and interaction with children outside the home.  Also the wide world beyond offers many attractions, but do not forget that there is much to explore locally, even within a kilometre radius as well.

Now the problem in many urban neighbourhoods is that other kids aren’t necessarily around. So we have to call and set times to meet in the park or in one anothers’ homes. This is a good habit to start, and other kids will be glad too. In our neighbourhood in Mumbai, right from the beginning we have gone to the garden every evening and other babies came there as well. Those babies are now 7-13 years old and we still go out every evening to play, along with some new kids born in the past few years.

Children at play.   Photo: Biswaranjan Rout/AP

Children at play. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout/AP

Sometimes kids come to visit from other neighbourhoods or buildings and comment on how nice it is that kids are playing outside. That is when I realized that it does not happen everywhere, but we can and need to make it happen. If we make sure to go outside and if needed even go knock on doors and call people to come and play, then everyone gets used to the idea that there will be people to come out and play – and people come and knock on our door just as often.

I would also say that it is normal for children to play in mixed age groups, rather than having all children of the same age put together, as is common in schools, including play schools.

Children, at home or outside, will sometimes play school just as they sometimes play doctor or play shop.  This does not mean that they need a doctor or school to tell them how to play, any more than they need a shop to provide things to play with.  These are fictional worlds within they create roles, invent problems and try out solutions.

In general, play school is not an appropriate place for children who want to explore and interact because most of the play is directed by adults instead of by children.   Another common pitfall of schools, including play schools, is unsolicited evaluation, which psychologist Peter Gray says, interferes with creativity.

For very young children, below 5 or 6 years of age, a school schedule can particularly interfere with the evolving rhythms of eating and sleeping. I have seen parents push children to eat a certain amount by a certain time because of the timings of the school. This kind of pressure takes away from the child’s ability to perceive and decide when s/he is hungry or full, to learn to explore a variety of foods at a comfortable pace, and to learn to be in tune with his or her body.  Same goes for sleeping and waking. Freedom encourages healthy eating and sleeping habits.  Time pressure, on the other hand is the ally of the packaged food industry, that is ever on the lookout for opportunities to introduce packaged food and catch customers as young as possible.

What I would look for in an environment conducive to learning would be adults and children of various ages and generations doing things that interest them, together and separately. I would avoid toys that do things like light up or make sounds but rather let anything inspire play – used boxes, mud puddles, kitchen utensils.

Some related articles: Autonomous worlds of imagination | The right toys | More on toys.

In a checklist format, it would go something like this:

– not segregating children by age, but rather allowing a wide range of ages to mix freely
– specifically, no teaching of standardized colors, shapes, names of vegetables and fruits, letters, numbers, rhymes, or any other thing that is pre-decided by the adults.
– no rewards, punishments, bribes, threats, gold stars, etc.
– no one says “good girl” or “good boy” or “don’t cry” or “good job” or “fast!” or similar statements that presume to judge or manipulate the child’s behavior.

– freedom for children to come (or not come) and go, join or not join any given activity, not answer a given question, ask a different question, even if the answer is unknown
– freedom to speak in any language
– freedom for parents and grandparents to take part
– freedom to try things on their own, make mistakes, do things differently, not finish things, and to continue things even if others are finished.
– adults who model rather than dictate behaviour, and who speak and listen to children as they would like children to speak and listen to them.
– adults who are present and doing things they find interesting and not there to teach any particular thing, but who respond to children and allow them to get involved in whatever they are doing if they wish, while ensuring safety.
– open space, preferably outside, where children are free to explore, get muddy, fall down, etc.

I could go on …. but I will pause here.

You may wish to read Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn. The subtitle is: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. He has some interesting chapters on how play has suffered by becoming more supervised and less imaginative in the current generation.

Related article: Listening and Learning from Birth

  1. Dear Aravinda.

    Read your article yesterday. It is beautifully written and captures the spirit of what children need very effectively. You also bring out very clearly the need to revive these neighbourhoods which we had advantage of when we were growing up and today our children don’t have an access to. Thanks for sharing the article.



  2. I get a exited/scared shiver whenever I hear something that sounds like my name…
    Because whenever my friends come to play, and I haven’t come yet, someone yells “Khi-YA-li!!” at me from the gate. 🙂 (then I come)


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