Play refers to an activity done for enjoyment rather than a serious purpose. So "purposeful play" - which the Ministry of Education has included as a key component of its pre-school curriculum - may sound like an oxymoron.
But Ms Leong Pik San, a senior specialist at the ministry's pre- school education branch, said the term refers to a teacher setting up a learning environment in which a child can play.
For instance, a teacher could put out some materials to let a child play, which would allow the teacher to observe and understand the youngster.
"So the 'play' is about the children and the 'purposeful' is about the role of the teacher," Ms Leong told an education forum organised by The Straits Times yesterday.
But there are merits to free play too, according to Dr Stuart Brown, a consulting professor from Stanford University, who founded the National Institute for Play in California and spent years studying the effects of free play on early childhood development. He said the activity develops traits such as empathy and reasonable risk-taking.
For instance, a child who has punched a friend too hard while playing will learn about appropriate aggression through the incident.
Dr Brown said that for purposeful play to work, it is important that the child is not pressured to act in a specific way. "If there is teacher pressure towards a specific performance, that squelches the intrinsic motivation, exploration and curiosity (of the child)."
Engineer Daniel Tan, 33, who attended the forum with his wife, said he believes children should engage in free play. But the father of a two-year-old boy added that he sometimes worries that he is overprotecting his child.
"If my child is climbing at the playground, I want to be there for him to catch him if he falls. Yet I don't want to fuss over him."