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Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in free play

Posted by on in Early Childhood

In my work, as in the work of many people, I imagine, there are themes that come up again and again. Sometimes I get asked a question and I can point to a blog post I wrote or an article I read months or years earlier that touches on the same subject. Little kids have some very consistent interests; it’s why certain toys remain popular for generations. Building toys are one of those evergreen entertainments; kids can play with Lego or magnet-tiles forever, it seems.


In general, my attitude towards the “problem” of repetitive play has been to encourage educators to look more closely at children’s play, to observe with a curious eye and to wonder about what they might be missing. In short, my approach has been to push back against our perception that there IS a problem at all. Often, when children return again and again to the same materials, they’re trying to figure something out and it’s our job to value what they’re doing enough to discover and support the intentionality of their play.

However, there are some times when repetitive play really is something to be concerned about and it’s worth spending some time thinking about how we might structure the environment and our interactions with children to support expanding their repertoire of play behaviour.

Recently, I was working with a teacher who was distressed by the repetitive play she was observing in her classroom. A group of boys consistently chose to visit the Lego centre and exclusively created spinning toys that they then “battled” against each other to see which one could withstand colliding with the other spinners. They resisted choosing any other material or building any other type of structure. It had been months of repeating the same play behaviour and they were unfazed. The teacher had tried her best to extend the play towards an investigation into rotation, more broadly, but they were unmoved. The Beyblades continued to duke it out.

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

relaxed kids

I try not to over-schedule my daughter (who just turned six). This is harder than I ever would have imagined. There are so many things she could do, should do, wants to do, and/or could learn from in some way. We are constantly seeking the balance that is right for her and for our family. Sometimes things get a little out of whack (for example, when seasonal activities don't line up quite right), but we keep trying.

One thing that helps is the fact that my daughter seems to understand herself, and to know that she doesn't like it when she is over-scheduled. She recently opted not to do our local Swim Team this summer, despite the compelling fact that many of her friends are on the team. Selfishly, I was happy about this choice, but I truly do think that it was better for my daughter. She needs downtime. She needs time for unstructured play. She needs time to just goof around and try things out. She needs time to read and be read to. She just needs time.

She had a recent afternoon mostly free (except for an hour for karate class). She used the time to rearrange my office (sigh), start reading a middle grade book (she did not get far, but I applauded the effort), build some things with Legos, brainstorm a poem that she wants to write for next week's Teacher Appreciation Day, and learn to ride a bike without training wheels. I would say that this is a pretty typical day, but the truth is that there is no typical day when you are six years old and provided with free time. [Of course the bicycle was an accomplishment, of which she is quite proud.]

It's not that Swim Team (or piano lessons or softball or tennis or whatever else we might have chosen) wouldn't have been valuable in a different way. But I can't let go of the feeling that having big chunks of free time to dabble about is more valuable. At least for now, when she is six years old. And the fact that at six she thinks so too is pretty much all I need to know.

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Posted by on in Teaching Strategies



This is a follow up post to “Breaking Sticks: Awesome Life Lessons From A 2 Year Old” in which I will relay how I plan to, and you might as well if you are a parent or an educator, apply these lessons in my roles as a father and a teacher. Please click on the title above for more context as it is a quick 5 minute read you will enjoy.

(You Gotta) Fight For Their Right (To Party) aka Let Them Play!

“Now boys, don't get into any trouble while mommy and daddy are gone. And DON'T make a mess!” - The Beastie Boys

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Posted by on in Movement and Play


At her elementary school science fair, my granddaughter explained her poster and experiment with the great fervor an almost ten-year-old can muster. She and her friend, who is in California on a family sabbatical, decided to prove once and for all that recess improves learning, or at least puts students in a receptive mood so they can benefit from classroom instruction.

No doubt they got the idea for their experiment from listening to their parents’ conversations about the importance of recess. The Great Recess Debate has been raging in our community since parents and a school board member asked for a “recess as a right rather than a privilege” policy. You would have thought the sky had fallen given the opposition from administrators, the school board, and some teachers.

The question my granddaughter and her friend decided to explore for the science fair was, “Does the amount of recess affect your mood.” Their main hypothesis was that it does, and as a result it impacts learning. As background, they offered the following facts:

  1. Some schools have cut recess because they think it gives kids more time to learn.
  2. Studies show that after recess kids pay better attention in class.
  3. People have better moods after they exercise.

Their methods may seem naïve, but they decided to compare their moods in the morning, after the child in California had recess while my granddaughter had none, their moods after lunch when both had recess, and their moods in the afternoon when neither had recess. They used a scale that measured moods ranging from alert, excited elated, happy, contented, serene, relaxed, calm, fatigued, bored, depressed, sad, upset, stressed, nervous, and tense. Did I mention three out of four of their parents have PhDs in child psychology?

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Posted by on in Movement and Play

DSCN2610Carefully arranged found nature items.

Children are naturally creative. When given the space and the freedom, they will create their own play situations that can entertain for hours. And, when provided the opportunity to use more open-ended objects, children transform them into imaginative items seamlessly incorporating them into their play. An old cardboard tube becomes a telescope. A stick becomes a fishing pole. A mix of mud, rocks, leaves, and water becomes a delicious soup. Ordinary becomes extraordinary when kids are allowed time for free-play, where they can invent and discover without expectations and pressure to finish a particular product. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children need unplanned play for creative growth, self-reflection, and decompression. This progress can occur with free play because there is less pressure due to the fact that there is no right or wrong way to create. Children are allowed to make their own choices, resulting in self-confidence and independence.

DSCN4337Fishing off of the deck.

The outdoors can be a wonderful place for free play. Toys are not a necessity. Children can explore, create, and imagine with simple, found objects, learning about themselves and the world around them. Take a nature walk with your children. Let your kids play freely in the great outdoors – in you backyard, at a park, or any other natural area. Experience the joy that this type of play can provide.

*This post originally appeared on my blog, Backyard Learning.*

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