Tag Archives: play

The Value of Spontaneous Play

The Value of Spontaneous Play

A few days ago, I wrote about having fun with our children and not worrying about whether they’re learning anything or not. However, I don’t want to minimize the value of spontaneous play and the amount of learning that occurs through it.

The first book I ever read about homeschooling was a few years after our family began our life learning adventure in the 1970s. It was And the Children Played (Tundra, 1975), a memoir by the late Canadian playwright Patricia Joudry about her young family’s life in the UK. I was delighted to read her humorous description of a life that was very similar to ours, where the children played as the rest of family life unfolded, including mom’s writing career. Along with Joudry, we never doubted that self-directed, spontaneous play was the best way for our daughters to learn.

Of course, there are many others who understand the immense value of play. Scholar and author Joseph Chilton Pearce has said that play (and I think he meant unstructured play) is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.

Sadly, spontaneous play is becoming a casualty of modern Western society’s frighteningly misguided attempt to better educate children. In spite of lots of research to the contrary – and pleas from groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics – many parents and policy makers continue to believe that pressuring children to learn earlier and faster will help them succeed.

Ever-younger children are being placed in structured teaching environments in the name of future success in school (which, of course, doesn’t have much to do with real education anyway). In school – and many homes – play is what you do when the more important, adult-led things are finished, like reading readiness and math drills. That’s why, in many schools, recess is endangered. The Museum of Play in Rochester, NY (there’s a sure sign of an endangered species!) says that forty percent of elementary schools in the U.S. have reduced or eliminated recess, partially in order to make time to prepare for standardized testing (which many parents support.) I’m sure the numbers are similar in other countries.

A related concern is children’s safety as they play. We have developed an unjustified fear that our kids will hurt themselves if allowed unlimited and unsupervised spontaneous play, disregarding the value of risk in their development.

Oddly enough, what we are denying our children is becoming more important for adults in the workplace. Many leading edge businesses are aware that creativity, innovation, and productivity are nurtured by play, and are structuring play spaces into their corporate facilities. They’re quoting people like Swiss philosopher Jean Piaget, who once said to a group of adults: “If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society.” These corporate leaders know that spontaneous play allows the mind to flow without restrictions – to explore, to experiment, to question, to take risks, to be adventurous, to create to innovate and to accomplish – without fear of rejection or disapproval. And that is the perfect learning environment…for all ages.

So next time your child stops to play with an ant on the sidewalk, or just wants to run through some mud puddles, don’t hurry them along to an activity of your choice. Children have a lot to teach us about the best way to spend the present moment – they know about the value of spontaneous play.

Fun … For the Fun of It

Fun for the sake of having fun

Having fun with your kids? Just relax and enjoy it; it doesn’t need to be more than just fun.

One of the mainstays of the homeschooling industry is inspirational books and magazine articles describing enjoyable things to do with your kids that are also educational. This notion that we have to make learning fun by dressing it up as games or other enjoyable activities is nonsense…and, more often than not, our kids know that. And that knowledge lessens both the enjoyment and the learning.

Learning is not difficult, boring, or unpleasant. What happens in school is often difficult, boring, and unpleasant, but that’s forced memorization/regurgitation, not real learning. Real learning is either not even noticed because it’s a side effect of being deeply engaged in an activity or it’s jumping-up-and-down joyful discovery.

Fun is a valid outcome on its own, and there is no need to feel guilty about playing with no hidden agenda. In fact, telling kids that something will be enjoyable when we really want to sneak in some “serious” education is every bit as manipulative as what goes on in school.

When my kids were young and learning from life, we loved playing board games, we traveled a lot, and we often went on hikes and visits to the science museum, the zoo, and art galleries (among many other activities). Heidi and Melanie undoubtedly learned some science, math, spelling, and other academic “subjects” while engaging in those activities (as did their father and I). But that wasn’t the purpose. The purpose was to enjoy life – to have fun…laughing, exploring, and enjoying each others’ company.

While we were living life and enjoying ourselves, we also got an education. But the focus was on having fun just for the fun of it. So let’s relax and let fun family activities be fun without staging them for a purpose or dissecting the learning that may have happened as a result.

You can read articles about having fun, playing with kids, and giving them the freedom to play on their own on the Child’s Play Magazine website, one of the digital publications that I edit.

The Importance of Self-Directed Play

The importance of self-directed play.Kids are born curious and highly motivated to learn about and explore their world. Once we understand that they are inherently active learners, we can accept the importance of self-directed play in our children’s lives – and do all we can to support it.

I think it is hard to over-emphasize the importance of self-directed play in children’s lives. When we think about how kids spend their time, we tend not to differentiate activities like organized sports, visits to amusement parks, or watching movies from play. But there is a huge difference, as this article in Child’s Play Magazine by Laura Grace Weldon points out so well.

Real play is self-directed play, and that means it is self-organized. It is an active, hands-on activity that the child controls. It is also spontaneous. Organized sports, although we think of them as play, are activities that are planned and controlled by someone else – usually an adult.

Being entertained, by going to amusement parks, for instance, is a passive activity rather than being self-directed play. Even if it is fun and involves some participation, entertainment is usually provided by adults for children. (When children create a play or musical presentation or computer game for other children or adults, of their own accord, it becomes play!)

Self-directed play is educational, teaches children to entertain themselves, nurtures creativity, and develops imagination. On the other hand, while rollercoasters and cartoons and even most playground equipment can be fun, they are based on someone else’s ideas and activities, not the child’s, and can contribute to habits of passivity and boredom.

The world is a child’s playground and the provider of a rich education. Helping kids explore the world and its wonders is our job as parents, educators, and play professionals. And it’s been my mission, and that of my company Life Media, for close to forty years now. I hope you will check out our magazines for ideas and insights about self-directed play and self-directed learning…and have some fun with your kids along the way!

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.

Child’s Play Magazine Encourages Free-Range Play

Child's Play Magazine Promotes Free-Range PlayMy new publication, Child’s Play Magazine, is live. Please visit its website, where you can learn more about our editorial mandate of free-range play, discover the topics we’re working on for future issues, and more.

Child’s Play Magazine is designed to help parents, caregivers, teachers, and other people who work with children understand why it is so important for children to experience free-range activities and unstructured play, and to help them provide such opportunities for children. I hope that it will also help adults get in touch with their own playfulness!

It was first published in newsletter format, beginning in 1983, and later was a website for many years. It has recently relaunched as a reader-supported digital magazine.

Unstructured play is crucial to children’s learning, as well as their social, emotional, physical, and creative development. However, in our rush to educate children and our fears about their safety, we are increasingly limiting opportunities for that type of play.

Fortunately, that is counteracted by the growing free-range childhood movement, which values unstructured play and children’s autonomy (something I also write about in one of other online publications, Life Learning Magazine. I sense some excitement in the air about following children’s lead into the woods, up the trees, and right through the mud into the realm of commonsense and freedom – the freedom of time and space to just play.

I invite your comments about the magazine, and your contributions for future articles in Child’s Play Magazine. Let’s work together to document the benefits of unstructured play for our children, to provide opportunities for that play, and to convince the rest of our risk-averse society of the importance of children’s free-range play.

Please share the Child’s Play Magazine website with anyone and everyone you know who might be interested in free-range play, and/or is in a position to help us spread the word.