Why does time and space for children’s ‘agency’ matter and how can play help? (Play Today 1)

“As newborns we enter the world completely dependent on others – for food, warmth, shelter and survival. Throughout our lives we remain connected to those around us. But we also strike out on our own, developing the confidence to explore and make sense of our surroundings, gradually becoming aware that we have influence and a measure of control over things that happen.” (National Quality Standard – Professional Learning Program 2013)

Ever had a buzz from realising that you can effect change over your life? That may be as simple as starting a new exercise or diet or as powerful as your vote  enacting legislative change for marriage equality. Pretty good feeling isn’t it knowing you have the power. Children have this right too – but sometimes we adults as carers, parents and educators forget this.

Yes children require love, nurturing, encouragement and support, but they also require some freedom, autonomy and a voice within their lives too. Children when given the opportunity are certainly capable of making decisions and holding valid opinions. All adults need to do is respect and listen to children and by that model a collaborative and cooperative world.

Supporting children to make simple choices for themselves is a relatively easy step towards encouraging independence and agency. This can easily be provided within flexible rather than fixed and regimented environments. Space to explore, loose parts and flexible settings which can be adapted through child-directed play can offer hours of valuable activity for children.

Sometimes as adults this can be a hard for us as offering choices to children may not be compatible with the timeframes and needs of our own daily routine, maybe we’re even worried about finding ourselves eventually out of a job.

The benefit that children will receive from this small window of opportunity for freedom is immense.

To empower children is to encourage them to undertake tasks themselves, rather than do it for them. Yes it may take more time and yes they may not do it perfectly – we all put shoes on the wrong feet at one stage! But just think how proud and confident they will feel in achieving something usually reserved for a grown-up. If children struggle or get frustrated, we can support with suggestions – not jump in and do it for them.

Free play is a great stage for encouraging children’s agency. Opportunities to lead, organise, socialise and problem solve independently are abundant.

So the next time we’re clock watching and hurrying children along to make that 3pm appointment, take a moment to breathe and consider what they are actually doing and how valuable it is to them – even if its just letting off steam.

“If you find yourself in an inconspicuous place, forget about time & all your pressing tasks, & simply watch and listen, you will develop a kind of reverence for the games of children, for their inexhaustible ingenuity … but you won’t always like what you see!” (Colin Ward, 1979)

Play Australia’s Play Today Campaign fact sheets (see image below) can be downloaded soon from www.playaustralia.org.au/play-today