“Meet you at the field in 20 minutes!” Johnny calls out to his friends after school. 

Twenty minutes later 15 kids of all ages meet at the field to let off some steam after school and find something to play together.  A few children brought a few balls, another child brought a bat and a couple had some new baseball gloves that they got for their birthdays.

They decide together to play some baseball and divide themselves into two teams. The older kids act as guides to the younger kids making sure the teams are even, and that little Isabelle doesn’t feel left out. Johnny takes her by the hand to show her the job she will have in the game, handing the next player a bat after each round.

The play starts when one child says “alright, let’s play!”. There is no referee. No adults around to blow the whistle. The kids just all consent that it is time to get the game going!

The oldest child is the pitcher. He makes sure that when he pitches to the younger children to throw a nice easy underhand throw. Anything else would be called “being mean” by the other children. The only way to keep the game going is to make sure everyone is having as much fun as possible. If too many people start to quit then the game will be over. The oldest pitcher makes sure to keep it fun for everyone. 

A few minutes later, a close call comes up. Some people think Johnny made it to the plate, and others think he is out! The kids began voicing their opinion about what they believe they saw. Johnny stands his ground to explain that he made it to the plate before the ball. The negotiating goes on for several more minutes. At this point the play is stalled. Would it be better if there was a referee there to decide this for the kids so they could just get on with playing? 

I am not so sure.

What skills are more useful in the “real world”? Learning out to run really fast in baseball or learning how to debate, negotiate and stand up for your opinion.

After several more minutes, the children decided it was too close to call and that there would be a re-play.

For me this scenario reminds me of my childhood in the 90’s. We had lots of free play time in the forest or at the school yard without adults intervening in our play. I am sure many of you who grew up in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s can attest to similar memories.

Where is the free play now?

I know when I go walking around my neighborhood I very rarely see children engaging in child-led, self directed play. Either a teacher or coach is present during structured after school activities or a well intentioned parent who is unknowingly “interrupting” the children at play by intervening too much. Guilty over here.

As a Camp Director, and most definitely the reason I do what I do is the joy I feel as I sit back and watch children interacting, negotiating and inventing during their free play.

The joy of watching as children figure it out.

The joy of seeing how each child has their own unique interests and ways they like to spend their time.

The joy of watching the child who seemed shy at the beginning find her voice and express her opinion.

The joy of watching how play develops and changes with each new participant who joins.

The joy of seeing a child get so lost in what they are doing they forget to look up.

Children learn about the world around them through play. If children’s play is always being externally directed, are we molding active or passive future adults?

Play is not a luxury. More specifically, free play is not a luxury. It is a necessity for healthy child development. Besides recess time at school, the rest of the child’s day is usually externally directed by an adult. Through programs that focus on child-led, and adult facilitated instruction…children are given the space and freedom to engage in meaningful play….whatever that may look like to each unique child.

Written by Mariah Kontopoulos

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