Play in all forms – from child-led to unstructured free play – is all the rage among some parents, who draw from educational philosophies such as Montessori, Waldorf and RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers).
The Facebook page, Respectful/Mindful Parenting Singapore, which was inspired by RIE, was set up in 2015 by two mothers, Ms Kasia Poleszak-Langner and Mrs Shumei Winstanley. It has close to 4,000 members.
Another Facebook group, Montessori in Singapore Homes, set up in April last year by stay-at-home mother Karen Abts has more than 390 members.
Elsewhere, more than 1,100 people subscribe to the Facebook group, Friends of Waldorf Steiner Education.
The Waldorf Steiner Education Association Singapore, founded in 2010 to promote Waldorf education and pedagogy in Singapore, started from a mother-run play group. It now also has a nursery and a kindergarten.
Ms Toh Yeng Yen, who trained in Rudolf Steiner early years education, says free unstructured play, with no interference from the adults, is the linchpin of the educational philosophy and very important for preschool children.
Under this philosophy, parents are advised to take a backseat even when a dispute occurs among children. They step in only when safety is compromised.
“Children learn through play. They create things, learn to focus and, when they play with others, work on their social and emotional skills.”
This does not mean there is no boundary to play. Ms Toh says: “We need to ensure that the play environment is safe. For instance, we won’t allow glass in the play environment of children aged three and below.”
To encourage such creative play and to ensure that the philosophies they subscribe to are practised at home, parents are putting more thought into the way they design their children’s spaces.
Mrs Abts, who is inspired by Montessori – which encourages independence in children – has been making the spaces at home accessible to her kids. They attend Workplayz Montessori in Bukit Timah for four hours from Mondays to Fridays.
In her home, plates and cutlery are stored in a low cupboard so that her children can get their crockery and help set the table. She also puts the water dispenser on a low shelf to let her older son dispense water himself.
She says: “Being able to do things themselves and help out with chores gives them a sense of joy and makes them more confident.”
Before moving into her terrace house in Jurong in 2014, Ms Kasia Poleszak-Langner (pictured above) and her husband, Mr Christopher Langner, a journalist, decided not to get a coffee table and a television set for their living room.
Instead, they wanted to turn the space into a play area for their son.
Ms Poleszak-Langner, a co-founder of social enterprise Chapter Zero Singapore, says: “We wanted him to feel included in the household and, at the same time, have easy access to different types of play.”
Today, her son Franek spends most of his time in the living room. It has open shelves for displaying toys, a toy kitchen and an area with Lego and wooden blocks, and other toys.
In the dining area is a children’s table for craftwork with crayons, colour pencils and paper. One corner was turned into a music area containing drums and other musical instruments.
A bookcase sits in another corner with the lower shelves reserved for Franek’s books.
In making spaces accessible to her child, Ms Poleszak-Langner, who is from Poland, is inspired by the Montessori philosophy.
But in her choice of toys, she is largely influenced by the RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) philosophy.
RIE (pronounced “rye”) encourages the use of simple open-ended toys, which can be played in multiple ways. These include wooden blocks, loose parts such as bangles, used bottle caps and clothes pegs with the metal hinges removed.
The centrepieces of Ms Poleszak- Langner’s living room are, in fact, climbing equipment popular in RIE that encourage motor development and help build confidence.
One is a step climber, which turns over to become a rocking boat – she had it custom-made in Poland about a year ago for $200.
She says: “Franek plays with it every day. He started from crawling on it to walking on it to jumping off it. It has become part of his environment.”
A few months ago, she got another climbing structure called a Pikler Triangle, also from Poland, for $90.
As RIE encourages outdoor play, she also created an outdoor area for Franek within the home where he can kick balls, join the helper to sweep the floor, water plants or work out on gymnastic rings with Mr Langner, who also teaches capoeira, a Brazilian martial art.
Ms Poleszak-Langner, who also has a younger daughter, says: “In arranging our space this way, he is free to move anywhere he wants. I feel it has helped him develop good motor skills and also made him more confident and creative.”
There are no baby cots, baby gates, playpens or high chairs to be found in Ms Yang Jingyi’s four-room HDB flat in the central part of Singapore.
The stay-at-home mother subscribes to the Montessori philosophy which advises giving children freedom of movement and encouraging independence.
Her sons Evan and Emmanuel have been sleeping on adult-sized single bed mattresses from as young as six months.
They eat from a highchair that comes with steps and no barriers and are allowed to wander into the kitchen as they please, as all sharp items such as knives have been placed out of their reach.
Ms Yang learnt about the Montessori approach from her cousin and read up about it while she was pregnant with Emmanuel.
She says: “It resonated with me and makes it easy for me to decide, for instance, what I should or should not buy for my children.”
The former preschool teacher at an enrichment centre avoids electronic plastic toys as they can overstimulate a child and are close- ended, in the sense that they have a narrow focus to create a specific shape, for instance.
Instead, she chooses open-ended toys such as wooden blocks, which allow the child to explore and has no definite end-point.
She also strives to make the spaces at home accessible to her children.
“When they can do things by and for themselves, they feel more accomplished,” she says.
In her sons’ bedroom, toys and books are displayed on low, open shelves and rotated monthly.
In their wardrobe, Emmanuel’s clothes are hung on a lower rung so that he can reach for them himself.
There are stools in the toilet so her children can reach the sink. Bottles of shampoo and body wash are also kept on a low shelf in the shower area.
Ms Yang, who is married to a junior college teacher, believes that her approach has helped her sons become more independent and confident.
Emmanuel started feeding himself at about 10 months old and could use a butter knife to cut soft fruit at age two.
He started brushing his teeth on his own when he was three-and-a-half years old and showering independently recently.
Ms Yang’s next Montessori-inspired project is to set up a snack station for her sons in her living room with healthy snacks, a water jar and cups.
She says: “This is to encourage them to do things on their own and attend to their own needs: feed themselves when they are hungry and drink when they are thirsty.”
When Ms Gan Mong Teng and her husband, who works in the banking industry, moved into their three-storey condominium unit in the west in 2011, they turned part of the living room into a play area for their daughter, then aged two.
Ms Gan says: “We wanted it to be a space where she could spend most of her time, playing, exploring and having fun.”
They installed a detachable swing, which can be replaced with a trapeze or a hammock when their daughter, Xi Lin, is older.
They also put up a magnetic chalkboard for their daughter to draw freely. The board is attached to a cement wall with a smooth finish so that if Xi Lin were to draw on the wall, her doodles can be wiped off.
When their second child, Ling Rui, came along in 2012, they also introduced her to the space where she took her first steps.
Ms Gan became more convinced about the importance of unstructured free play – where children play without interference from adults and with no learning goals in mind – when she attended a talk by Waldorf trainer Horst Hellmann at the National Institute of Education in 2014.
There, she learnt about the use of open-ended toys to promote imagination and creativity in children as well as how being connected with nature is an important element of Waldorf.
Following the talk, she replaced the play area’s plastic toys with those made of wood and natural materials, among other things.
She also added crafting materials such as yarn for finger-knitting, felt wool to make toys and beeswax for modelling.
She says: “Handwork and finger dexterity are an important part of Waldorf philosophy, which views the hands as a reflection of brain development.”
Last year, she cordoned off another play area for her daughters using fabric to turn the space behind the living room sofa into an enclosed area.
“They love the space and would spend hours inside, role-playing with their dolls, pretending to be chefs, mothers or doctors,” she says.
Ms Gan, who co-founded a nature play group called Sprouting Seeds last year, says: “I want our children to have a holistic upbringing and our home to be a place where they can explore their artistic and creative side, so as to balance the more academic things that they learn in school.”
Related: 5 ways to help my child play better
A version of this article first appeared in The Straits Times in 2017.
(Video and photos: The Straits Times)