Free to Play, Free to Learn

There are many things that my children and I have missed over the past year: visiting with friends and family, going into London to catch all the latest exhibitions, eating out without feeling self-conscious about the size of my family, but a great paradox of the pandemic was when we realized that we had been missing out on some really important things long before the pandemic ever started. 

A prime example is the culture of play that has emerged both in our home and on our street. 

Over the last 20 years, I’ve attended numerous workshops on play, as well as having read and studied a great deal on the importance of play in child development, but it’s been in the last year that I’ve gotten to see the benefits of play in a deep and personal way.

When lockdown restrictions began to ease as we headed into summer 2020, the children on our street started coming out of the woodwork. I honestly did not know there were so many kids on our street, but with playgrounds closed, activities cancelled, holidays on hold, they all had two choices. Stay inside, or come out to play.  

And most chose to play. It happened to be a most spectacular, rain-free summer, and the children played in the street each day, and well into the night. The children range in age from 4-19 years old. These were some of the highlights:

  • With the encouragement of their friends, 2 children learned to ride a bike.
  • Countless football matches were played.
  • Basketball games were organized using a street sign as a goal.
  • Endless (I mean endless) hours of capture the flag.
  • “Cops and Robbers”
  • Walkie-talkie games
  • Skipping rope
  • Hide and Seek
  • Tree climbing
  • Skateboarding
  • Sword fights
  • Dance routines
  • An exhibition for their “Model Museum”
  • They rehearsed for and performed a production of Macbeth at the end of the summer holiday.  
  • Once the leaves started to fall, they began to sweep out neighbors’ front gardens.  
  • When we were locked down again, the children organized another performance all done on Zoom and raised hundreds of pounds for a charity.  

None of it was adult-driven.

At The Genius of Play, a site dedicated to both the research and practical implementation of play in the home and classroom, there are  6 overarching benefits to play:

  1. Physical 
  2. Emotional
  3. Social
  4. Cognitive
  5. Creative
  6. Communication

Physical: The benefits are obvious. Our children sleep REALLY well.

Emotional: An interesting study was done a few years back by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeremy Hunter which studied the happiness and unhappiness in public school students in 6th through 12th grade.

“The lowest levels of happiness by far (surprise, surprise) occurred when children were at school, and the highest levels occurred when they were out of school and conversing or playing with friends. Time spent with parents fell in the middle of the range. Average happiness increased on weekends, but then plummeted from late Sunday afternoon through the evening, in anticipation of the coming school week.”

“As a society, we have come to the conclusion that children must spend increasing amounts of time in the very setting where they least want to be. The cost of that belief, as measured by the happiness and mental health of our children, is enormous.” -Peter Gray, Psychology Today

Social: Skills like working out problems with others, how to show empathy, how to exhibit self-control, and so much more are learned naturally during play. Despite the rise of “Social-Emotional Learning” (SEL) curriculums cropping up in school curriculums, you can’t teach social skills in the vacuum of a classroom.

“Even three- and four-year-olds will frequently form very tight bonds with each other if given the chance to associate freely and to discover their own ways of working out their differences.” 

Chris Mercugliano, Making it Up As We Go Along.
Model Museum exhibition

Cognitive: This is where schools usually camp out, with an over-emphasis on cognitive “skills” (aka- “knowing things”). During play, children can dive deeply into an activity and see it through to the end, thereby experiencing a richer, more meaningful understanding of the subject.

Creativity: I am constantly blown away by the games that are invented, the dances that are choreographed, and the objects and art that is constructed by my children and their friends when left to their own whims.

Communication: Not long ago, a neighbor friend joined my children and some of their friends at the playground. When they all came home, I asked this neighbor how it went. “Not good for 3 reasons,” he said. “1- Bryce (my son) was being bossy, 2-There were too many other kids, 3-They were not playing what I wanted to play.”

Without having to be “taught”, children are constantly working things out with each other. They have to, because they value that time of play more than always getting their own way. One of my favorite things to hear from my window is a cry of “That’s not fair!” because it is always followed by explanations, negotiations, and clarifications, all coming from the children involved since there is no adult to “bail them out”.

But what IS play exactly? And how do you know if your child is really receiving its benefits?

Peter Gray, who is featured in the film, Chasing Childhood, defines play as the following:

  1. Play is self-chosen and self-directed.
  2. Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends.
  3. Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players.
  4. Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life.
  5. Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

When a child is participating in an adult-led activity, even if the adult tries to make it “fun” or entertaining, it most likely is not true play and therefore does not carry its benefits.

For example, a child cannot usually “opt out” of a math game that they are playing in school if they find it dull.  In the case of school, music lessons, or sports (again, usually adult-led), the ends (grades, exam marks, trophy) are, often, of more importance than the means. Joy is squelched when children are no longer learning simply for the sake of learning or playing just for the fun of it.  Time spent doing homework often includes a stressed frame of mind, and even many “toys” lack the criteria for imaginative play.  

Camille and friend making steps for their caterpillar.

But isn’t work more important than play?

“What is learned [through play] is the ability to concentrate and focus attention unsparingly on the task at hand, without regard for limitations-no tiredness, no rushing, no need to abandon a hot idea in the middle to go on to something else.  This “lesson” is retained for life… We take play seriously here.  We wouldn’t dream of interfering with it.  So it flourishes at all ages.  And the graduates who leave school go out into the world knowing how to give their all to whatever they’re doing, and still remembering how to laugh and enjoy life as it comes.”

– Daniel Greenberg (founder of Sudbury Valley School), author, Free at Last

That sounds like good work to me! So the question is, according to the criteria above, when and where are you giving your children space to play?

Basketball on the street using a street sign as the goal.

For further reading on play:

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Playborhood by Mike Lanza

It’s ok not to share , It’s ok to go up the slide by Heather Shumaker

Lisa Murphy on Play by Lisa Murphy

Mud Kitchen in a Day, Unplugged, The Backyard Play Revolution by Jason Runkel Sperling

In Defense of Childhood by Chris mercogliano

Michael Rosen’s Book of Play! by Michael Rosen

Play by Stuart Brown

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