Monthly Archives: February 2015

Why We Should Protect Spontaneous, Unstructured Play

Preserving spontaneous, unstructured playSpontaneity is one of the great strengths of little children; they live in the moment, following their curiosity, darting here and there, picking things up and putting them down, trying, exploring, laughing, playing. Spontaneous, unstructured play is something that children know how to do very well. If only adults who have forgotten all about the fun and benefits of spontaneous play could get out of their children’s way!

Many parents are scared of spontaneity. It can lead to a child wandering off, or taking a risk that could lead them into danger. And we’re really fearful of danger these days – for many justified and many more unjustified reasons. Honoring spontaneous, unstructured play requires trust in children’s ability to regulate their own time, and our society doesn’t trust children much in general. And how will our children ever prepare for college and the working world if they are allowed to play all day?! School definitely frowns on spontaneity and lack of structure, as do many recreational pursuits – especially those of the organized team variety.

Spontaneity also dies when we develop the compulsion to do things perfectly. Although some people are less spontaneous than others (and prefer more structure in their lives), I think results-based schooling and parenting can kill both the spark of spontaneity and the ability to create our own structure. We destroy the ability to be spontaneous when we ask our children to be quiet and “well-behaved,” and when, in school, we impose our own structure on them, and require order and good test results. In these ways, we teach our children not to take chances, only to do things they can do well, and to look to others for approval.

When I was a child, my family couldn’t afford to give me lessons outside of school; that worked in my favor. Because nobody expected competency in what I did on my own time, I was able to engage in spontaneous, unstructured play, to explore and to experiment with various creative pursuits. There was no pressure or even, for the most part, any time constraints. And that’s how I became a writer.

A friend of mine, on the other hand, learned how the road to perfection is littered with landmines waiting to kill the joy of creativity and spontaneity. As a young child, he had fun noodling around on the piano. Somebody thought he might “make something” of his apparent talent if he was “serious enough” about doing so. So he had to stop playing, get a teacher, and start practicing. A rigorous schedule was followed and there were competitions to take part in, always on the road to the holy grail of perfection. He turned out not to be one of those talented exceptions eager to hone their special skills. The joy and spontaneity of play fled as quickly as playing the piano became goal-oriented. And he doesn’t even “play” the piano now.

How sad to be taught that spontaneity and joyful, unstructured play are not important, that learning is work, that trial and error is inefficient, that there is something wrong with the joy of discovery and creation, that the only valid pursuits in life are those done on a schedule, for reward, or for other people’s reactions.

Like anything else that is feared, mistrusted, structured, avoided, or underused, the ability to engage in spontaneity and spontaneous, unstructured play withers away. We become unimaginative and inhibited about trying new things, and shy about expressing ourselves in new ways. And that is unfortunate, since spontaneity is one of the components of creativity, something that we can all use more of in our personal and working lives.

In fact, says the late child development specialist, experimental educator, and author James L. Hymes Jr, “Play builds the kind of free-and-easy, try-it-out, do-it-yourself character that our future needs.”

Join me at Child’s Play Magazine to explore this topic, and everything related to play, in more depth.

Unschoolers Live (and Learn) at the Edges

Living and learning at the edgesIn my 2014 memoir It Hasn’t Shut Me Up, I wrote how, all my life, I’ve operated along the borders of things…at the edges. When I was a child, it was called the sidelines by those – like my mother – who wanted me to be more participatory and less thoughtful, when quiet meant getting into trouble. I remember as a young child being scooted back to bed when I was discovered perched just out of sight in the darkened kitchen listening to the adult conversation. I remember as a young teen that sitting along the wall at dances was where I met the most interesting people…those who were happier to chat than to stumble over each others’ feet in the middle of the floor. Sometimes, I was called “snooty” and thought to be standoffish. So I went through a phase of trying to be in the middle of the action, forcing myself to do things designed make me popular. But at some point, I realized that I was more comfortable (and still had friends) at the edges. My view of edge-sitting continued to evolve when I met and married a man who also inhabits the edges, who, in fact, is often at the leading edge, and doesn’t care if it’s lonely or even premature.

Over the years, I’ve learned that the edges are a good place from which to observe, and observation is one of the things that journalists and writers like me do. But I’ve also learned that borders are lively places, where some of the most interesting stuff happens, because change is part of their definition. In the course of editing Natural Life Magazine, which my husband and I launched in 1976, I discovered Permaculture, the sustainable systems design practice where edge habitats – borders or transition areas between ecosystems, such as forests and grasslands, for instance – are recognized as the places where there is the most diversity. Edge species are often more flexible, resilient pioneer species, and sometimes even so hardy as to be unruly and invasive. This 1994 Natural Life Magazine article describes the Permaculture edges concept well, I think.

The author of that article even suggests that humans are an edge species. That got me thinking that our family, which “radically unschooled” in the 1970s, when it was just called “homeschooling,” was an edge-dwelling family. We were pioneers, seemingly unruly to many, flexible by need, and helping lead major change on a number of fronts. Sometimes we were so far to the edges as to seem marginalized from mainstream society. And, looking back on those forty years, I see that our whole life, along with our business, was radical.

So I was struck by this quote that I saw recently on Facebook, posted by writer Laura Grace Weldon of Free Range Learning: “Most revolutions begin in the margins. We can see this in many famous people for whom school never worked. Everybody from Einstein to George Lucas to Jack Horner, the paleontologist, are people for whom school was too narrow. They were marginalized. Students in the margins, as in any revolution, are pointing at the way towards the future.” ~David Rose, Founder and Chief Education Officer, Harvard School of Education.

Those are the Permaculture edges to which Rose is referring. And he’s highlighted my conclusion that unschoolers / life learners are an edge species. We mark the transition between school thinking and living as if school doesn’t exist. That puts us at the lively, leading edge, crossing the border between old ways of thinking and new ways of dealing with a changing world. Edges are not for the faint of heart, but, as neither my mother nor I understood when I was a kid, they can be productive and exciting.

P.S. If you are interested in pursuing the comparison between Permaculture and unschooling, here is an article from Life Learning Magazine about that.