It’s Spring break and my son has two glorious weeks off of school. It’s been interesting for me to witness how our current culture’s values of ‘production and outcomes’ crept up on me. I have found myself having to be grounded again in what I know to be true: free play matters. It’s absolutely essential to emotional health and well-being.
I know this. I speak about it. I write about it. I advocate for play in education and we are very conscious to carve out time for free play in our home life. And yet this week, I noticed this feeling of pressure seeping into me. I felt an icky, tightening sensation begin to rise in my chest. I found myself grappling with, should I be doing more?
Let me back up and explain.
I have three children, two are now adults and are off living their lives, and my youngest son, who is still at home with us, is twelve. He spends hours and hours a day playing. As he enters adolescence, his play is changing. Where he used to fall into more imaginative play, he is now drawn to hours of reading, free style piano, and games in the street with neighborhood kids.
But this week he found a project. A big one. He and three neighborhood friends came up with the idea of building a fort in the woods near our house. Their excitement was palpable. They spent almost a full day dragging items into the woods. He would come home at the end of each day with pink cheeks, cold hands, and thrilled with all they were doing. On Monday, he and his friends packed their breakfast and snacks in backpacks and headed to their fort for the day. He came home only once to quickly replenish his food and use the bathroom and then didn’t return until 6 pm! You won’t believe how cool it is! You won’t believe how beautiful our spot is! We found a goat skull!
The fort my son built with his friends
That evening, as my husband and I had tea and chatted about our day, we got talking about how great it was that our son was having so much fun with his project. I asked my husband if he thought I should go pick up some materials for him? Maybe we should be helping him in some way? Maybe I should buy him some wood and nails so he can build a better fort?
My wise husband answered me gently by saying, Hannah, he is so engaged with this project simply as it is. He wakes up each morning rushing to go there. He is not asking for materials. The kids are having fun scrounging up what they can find. They are being creative. Suggesting he needs ‘real materials’ might take away from it feeling like his project. It also might shift his creativity to be filtered through an adult lens and have him focus on making the fort ‘better’ rather than it just being fun. If he asks for something, then let’s think about it – but let’s not take over as the kids are excited with their found scraps and love it just as it is. Let’s not put our adult version of ‘better’ into his imaginative world. And then he laughed and said: You know that you taught me this – it’s you who initiated all these conversations when the kids were little. What’s up?
What’s up is that I am not immune to our culture. I needed that gentle reminder.
I don’t need to make it ‘better’. I don’t need to enter my child’s play with an adult view of what a ‘good’ fort looks like. In doing so, I could have inadvertently (albeit with the best of intentions) turned my child’s ‘play’ into ‘work’.
Our children’s free play does not need our input. In fact, it needs to be free of our input.
Free play is a sacred space. It’s the container in which learning, growing, feeling, and discovering can flourish. It’s where a child’s ideas can percolate in a safe way. In play, children can build and have things fall apart, over and over, allowing them to practice being frustrated without any real-life consequences or repercussions. Play is how children digest their lives. It is when they make sense of their world, release frustration and anxiety, and understand experiences without them being threatening or overwhelming.
Play is not an “extra”; it is essential in our children’s lives. It acts as the role of a release valve, life’s rehearsal grounds, and supports children to come to know themselves in ways that cannot be taught.
I knew this deep down, I teach it! But I also live in a culture which pushes. When better, faster, busier, make-overs, and renovated everything is the norm, it can be challenging to trust in nature and hold fast to what is actually healthy. Just because something is common, does not make it natural or beneficial.
I am grateful for this week’s reminder to simply let play be its beautiful self and hold this unassuming space for the unfolding of human potential. I don’t need to enhance it or try to make it more ‘productive’. I can just be thankful and step back and watch with awe at how free play takes care of growing our children from the inside-out.