There Is No Such Thing As “Free Play”

If you ever get a chance, I hope you will read the work of Clark Moustakas.  He was one of my greatest teachers.  He wasn’t the energetic self-promoter like other pioneers , but his wisdom and clarity of thought seems obvious.  He is a pioneer in play therapy a founder of Humanistic Psychology.  He is also one of the kindest, most gentle and humble human beings I have known.  He is wise.  I studied play (sounds weird to “study” play) under him and other great teachers.  Because I spent so much time with the topic, I’m very alarmed that it is disappearing in the lives of children.  I am especially concerned that play is becoming limited in many of our schools. As my twins enter the first grade next week, I know that they will be playing less.

What is Play?

Early on, I struggled to find a satisfactory model or theory about why play therapy worked.  Play had transformational properties.  I knew it because I saw it. I saw some amazing things happen through play, but I still found it mysterious.  I’ve learned  a bit since then and I want to share it with you.  First, I will confess that Lev Vygotsky and his followers and fans, e.g., J.P. Das, Laura Berk, A.R. Luria, etc., have had a great influence on my understanding of play.  While Vygotsky wrote very little on play, he elevated it to the highest status in child development. Had he lived longer, he likely would  have further documented his thinking.   I’ll tell you some of what he said and maybe this will help you and the children you care about.  Who cares about Vygotsky?  Me and a growing number of others.  He was almost universally thought a genius by his peers.  Anyway, here are some insights I will offer from Vygotsky, my experience,  and some very smart people.

Insight #1: Playing is NOT goofing off.  It may look like it, but it is not.  In the photo above, it may seem that my children are playing in our toy box.  Wrong!  Actually, they built  a high-powered rocket ship replete with high-powered, state of the art rocket propulsion.  I’m  kidding.  It’s a toy box.  What I’m  concerned with is what is happening in their little minds. (It was a sailboat anyway).  They are learning, for example, how to separate a) thought from actions and objects and b) inhibiting impulsive actions in favor of self-regulation.  That toy box contained the quality and essence of “boat”.  Pick up Laura Berks and Adam Winsler’s excellent book “Scaffolding Children’s Learning” for a detailed discussion on this phenomenon.  I’d add that they are learning to make a mess, but they pretty much have that down.  I passed that gene on to them.

Insight #2: Children always behave beyond his/her average age and above his/her daily behavior.  This is important.  The fantasy play that emerges at the end of toddlerhood becomes a “leading factor in development” (cited in Berk, I’ll give you another reference below b/c, as I mentioned,  I love her work).  Important:  Vygotsky is talking about cognitive development, you know, “thinking.  But why?  I’m worried that this post is becoming too academic for some, so can I just say again that it involves learning to think abstractly, separating thought from the external world?  Here, we are observing that the child is exploring a world in a way that is ahead of his/her development.  Imagination and abstract thinking are the very things that good students do in school!

Insight #3: Imaginative play helps children learn to control themselves.  Say what?  That doesn’t sound right, does it? How can that be?  Shouldn’t children be practicing sitting still, like the school I remember, if they want to get good at it?  Vygotsky noted that children continually act against immediate impulses during play.

Finally, Insight #4. There is no such thing as free play.  I’ve hinted at this above.  All play is rule based!  How about when playing cops and robbers?  The robber doesn’t make the arrest.  I could go on.  I can remember arguing with friends things like, “Hey!  Batman can’t fly!  You can’t do that!” when playing superheroes, for example.  Even that game had rules.

When we factor in the use of language, the physical exercise, the warm feelings between friends, the arguing/resolution, and the fact that other creatures in the animal kingdom (I’ll admit that my kids are animals), I’m very worried that we would accept rote academic experiences as somehow more vital to our youngsters.  Some adults even take away play as a method of punishment.

Still not persuaded?

Childhood play is crucial for social, emotional and cognitive ­development.  Imaginative and rambunctious “free play,” as opposed to games or structured activities, is the most essential type.  I know.  I just said there is no such thing as free play.  Let’s call it imaginative play.  Free play just seems too trivial a term for these times.

Finally, Insight #5– Kids that do not play when they are young may grow into anxious, socially maladjusted adults. In her book entitled “Einstein Never Used Flashcards”, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek  is unable to find any convincing evidence that academic acceleration offers any salutary effects by the time the child reaches 1st grade.  A 2007 report from the Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Pedi­atrics doc­u­ments that play pro­motes not only behav­ioral devel­op­ment but brain growth as well. The Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina’s Abecedar­ian Early Child Inter­ven­tion pro­gram found that chil­dren who received an enriched, play-oriented par­ent­ing and early child­hood pro­gram had sig­nif­i­cantly higher IQ’s at age five than did a com­pa­ra­ble group of chil­dren who were not in the pro­gram (105 vs. 85 points).  Again, any advantages that the academic group had disappeared by first grade.  Further, the children from the academic environments were more anxious and less creative than the children in the other group.

This isn’t just about raising healthy happy kids. On second thought, yes it is!

*** I recommend Laura Berk’s “Awakening Children’s Minds” for teachers and parents alike.  It is one of the 10 or so books I read several times a year when   I  need to find my center.

Published by drmartinfletcher

Martin Fletcher, Psy.D, L.P. Dr. Martin Fletcher is the Shrink of The Shepherd and the Shrink Podcast. He is in private practice at Renew Hope Counseling where he also supervises a team of talented clinicians. In late 2019 Dr. Marty teamed up w/ Dr. Matt Hook to respond to the growing mental health crisis. The goal is to help people create healthy spiritual lives in order to restore meaning and purpose to individuals, families, and communities. Psychology meets spirituality. Dr. Fletcher holds advanced degrees in clinical psychology and education. His treatment approach involves quickly reducing symptoms while helping patients design and maintain health promoting lifestyles. Dr. Fletcher is a husband to Kathy and dad to 3 sons and one daughter. His interests include fitness, guitar, motorcycles, mountain biking, and exploring the role of spirituality in health. Dr. Fletcher is fully licensed in the State of Michigan.

6 thoughts on “There Is No Such Thing As “Free Play”

  1. Adults “play” too. I am convinced that play helps us develop and grow and does not end in childhood. We play spontaneous games, with our friends. We often act out scenes in movies and shows that we have an affinity for and they teach us about relationships. Certain therapies, such as role playing or psychodramas, use direct acting to learn new ways of being or to alleviate traumas by re-working the experience. I think that showing adults the value of how they play and helps them may aid them in realizing the value of the “serious” games that children engage in.

    1. I agree completely. I read that the average gamer (video games) is something like 35 years old. We can take a playful approach to our jobs, bands, and other activities. We play with language when we make jokes. Creativity involves the play attitude. The military plays war games. Animals play when they play fight. The nips signify a bite, but also the opposite. I think that play should be the foundation of school. As we collect more data, we see that preventing play has some very negative health and learning consequences.

  2. I completely connect w/ your statement ” treat children as if they…had [a] brain. I promised myself that I would never be as patronizing to children as some of the adults I knew as a child. It was sort of a “no win” situation, where even if we did have something intelligent to say, we too often were not taken seriously.

  3. Outstanding expose of the difference between education and schooling. We simply must change how America thinks about schooling. (and I have nothing against flash cards. Drill does not kill. practice makes perfect and rote memorization is good.) but let’s treat children as if they already had brains going into kindergarten. and treat that marvelous mechanism with the respect it deserves by trusting it and learning from each unique self.
    Thanks again.

  4. Some of the most memorable experiences I have as a child come from playing different games with my friends. Most of them were make believe- we built a fort that actually sat on the moon as it was the best spot to control and monitor the earth and its earthlings- so the sky was never the limit!! Social interaction is key to the development of children’s young minds; so I am in total agreement with you! Play, play and more play! Play develops happy and smart kids.

    1. Davina, those are very compelling observations you are making. Why do you think you remember those events so strongly? We know that emotion contributes to memory. What role does play have in creating the appropriate emotional state to enhance those memories? What role does “fun” play in attention? These are questions that excite me.

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