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.