What is play (or free play or unstructured play) anyway?
Play theorists agree that in order to be categorized as unstructured, play must be:
Fun and Enjoyable
Requires one’s active engagement
This list seems straight forward enough. Chosen freely means just that: children get to pick. The children perform, direct, and produce it. Consider the adult a stage hand of sorts. We set out the props and the environment and the allow the actors to perform their magic. The choices remain in the hands of the children. They decide what to play, how to play it, and how long to play.
Our role in play is to Establish the Environment that supports play.
This environment ideally has:
Age appropriate challenges and remains just “safe enough”
The right amount of objects for size of the space & number children. More items can be added as a child grows. And a good rule of thumb for home for young children is only having as many things out as an adult is willing to put away at the end of the day.
To encourage rich, imaginative play that inspires a child to engage in self directed play, choose objects that are open ended, meaning they can be used in a variety of ways: ex. blocks can be used to build buildings and can stand in for groceries, phones, camping supplies. Containers of different shapes and sizes provide a never ending array of uses. (Balls, blocks, containers that open and close, silicone cupcake holders, wooden rings, wooden pegs, metal jar lids, metal juice can lids, bowls to name a few things)
Help support children in following just two rules:
Can’t hurt people
Can’t hurt things
Rules can be tricky, because depending on the environment and the objects, they can change. An example: throwing rocks. Adults often claim rocks aren’t for throwing. Well, that is just not true. We’ve all thrown rocks. Sometimes we spend quite a lot of time doing so- we just call it something fancier like “skipping”. The real story is you can’t throw rocks and have them hit things we care about (like people or windows). If you are in the woods, rock throwing seems like a wonderful part of a game and doesn’t require much of a limit. But in one’s back yard this might need the caveat “away from the house” or a redirect “perhaps a ball instead”.
Consider the truth of the rule and whether the rule adds to the quality of play or takes it a way.
Throwing rocks in the house stops play rather quickly! Set the rule from the get go to ensure everyone and everything stays safe. Doing so allows the children’s play to have some legs. Walking in the woods- let them throw stones… its hard to be a cave dweller without throwing a rock or two.
Sit back, enjoy, be a good audience member. And try and remember not every performance invites audience participation.
This one is the hardest one. Play is exciting and fun. But we need to tread slowly. Our fun quickly turns overbearing and indulges our own ideas and plans rather than allowing the child to lead. Try and allow yourself the gift of time spent with your child without needing to do more than simply be present for their discoveries.