Once upon a time, a child's day was made up of two main activities - school and play. When a child was not in school, he or she would be busy playing. Which usually meant running around, having fun outside the house in the neighbourhood, with all the other neighbourhood kids. It was a daily thing too, unless it rained, with no need for announcement nor pre-arrangement.
It was as regular as clockwork and as soon as members of the 'gang' were gathered, a game or an activity immediately ensued. It could be hantu galah, polis sentri or hide-and-seek. Or climbing rambutan trees if rambutans were in season or catching fighting fish by the stream. Some of the boys (and tomboys) could be catching spiders while the girls played masak-masak or a game of five stones. Oh, there were so many things to do and no one could be pulled away until their names were called out loud and shrill by their mother. By then it usually was sundown and everyone took the cue to return to their respective homes, where usually a hot piping dinner was waiting.
Those were the days... a somewhat alien scenario for the children of today. What, go outside to play? In the open, without air-cond? In the hot, sticky weather? Without our gadgets?
The thing is, children these days are no longer familiar with impromptu play outside their homes. It is a shame really, because free play is so important to a child's development. Aside from the obvious physical benefits from running around and being close to nature, free play contributes to a child's social skill, emotional wellbeing and mental stimulation.
In fact, children are not just born to play, they have the right to play. Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states, "That every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts."
The reason why this is so is obvious. Play should not be something a child gets to do after all his 'duties' are done such as homework, tuition and housework, for those few who do housework. Play, especially spontaneous, unstructured play, is crucial because it is vital for a child's emotional wellbeing. Babies develop physical and cognitive skills through play - they explore through movement and touch, they wonder and imagine. In fact babies learn best, and fastest, through play. Children are by nature, curious too. It is this curiousity that drives them to question and seek answers, which helps them learn. So playing plays a big role in satisfying this curiousity.
When children play with each other away from the watchful eyes and supervision of adults, they learn how to take control of their lives, make decisions, learn how to negotiate and get along with their friends or deal with those who are not so friendly. That way, they build resilience and a strong sense of self. If they fall and scrape their knees, they pick themselves up. If their friends are bullied, they learn to defend them. These are skills that are not taught in school and definitely not learned in a structured environment.
With so many compelling reasons that point to the crucial role of play, why then do we not let the kids out to play anymore? Many parents cite the lack of safety, no proper playground nearby, and even no neighbourhood friends to play with as the biggest reasons. The weather, of course, is to blame for keeping all of us indoors, in air-conditioning but lonely comfort.
If you believe that it is important for children to reclaim their right to play, here's what you can do - consider moving to a neighbourhood or property development that prioritises community living. These would have large open spaces and recreational facilities, and usually gated and guarded for security to promote free play and interaction among the residents. Think about it, you would be investing in your child's health, sense of belonging and happiness.
After all, friendships formed during childhood among neighbours usually last a lifetime. Everyone from the neighbourhood gang is special - not quite your brother or sister but definitely more than a friend. If you are from the same neighbourhood or kampung, you share a unique and special bond.