It’s okay to let our children play all day.
As a seasoned home educator and unschooler, I have been faced with the reality of having my children at home all day, every day and being responsible for their learning. Of course, there are some differences between my decision to home educate and the position many parents currently find themselves in. For instance, I chose, and continue to choose, to home educate my children, and under normal circumstances we would have access to museums and parks and libraries. However, things aren’t normal right now and we all have to change our daily rhythms and schedules to accommodate a new reality.
I have been home educating, specifically unschooling, for almost ten years. I have four children at home who have never been to school and are happy living and learning as they go about their daily lives. I spent the previous decade teaching in primary schools. Education at home is not the same as in schools. Timetables, targets, teacher-led input, group work, equipment, and curriculums, are all products of the educational system and are frequently impractical, unnecessary, frustrating and resisted by its participants, in a home environment. Parents are left searching desperately for help and alternatives.
Here is an alternative to consider: Put aside the things of school that are causing stress and resentment and let your children play. It’s a method of learning at home that is as old as time itself. It has been tried and tested throughout history and researched extensively by academics. It’s not a new idea even if it seems largely foreign to our modern minds and is worth examining as we look for a way forward for education with our children at home.
Let’s consider five benefits of allowing our children play all day:
1. Children love to play. I hope I speak for more than myself when I say that I want my children to be happy and enjoy their lives. They were born to play. As soon as babies are born they begin to explore the world around them through touch and sound and light and smell. They begin to figure out who their main care givers are and reach out with their hands and feet. In time they come to practice walking and talking, all this is achieved through experimenting with the world around them, repeating the same movements and continuously revisiting ideas. In short, they are playing. This ability to explore the world around them via their play doesn’t end when they become school age. In fact, arguably, if allowed to continue, play continues through childhood and into adulthood. For children of any age who are free to play, there is no distinction between their play and their work.
Children love to play and they are good at it. It is often when they are most happy because they have chosen what they are doing and the activity is self-directed and there is as much enjoyment in the process taking place as in the final result. When children have control over how they spend their time and what pursuits they follow they are happy and enjoy their lives.
2. Children are good at it. I mentioned above how children are born able to play. It comes naturally to them. What better way to build our children’s self-confidence than enabling them to do something that they are innately good at. They only need a few items, or sometimes none at all, to invent a game or build a toy or create something imaginary.
Some of our most successful play recently has been building a tepee in the garden from old bed sheets and a den in the bedroom. We have made music on household items and spent hours drawing pencil pictures.
No one really needs to teach children how to play. Children have the capacity to come together and share their ideas and communally decide how the game proceeds or they can immerse themselves in their own individual world and play intently for hours. Often they will revisit the same game, modifying it as they go, it can become complex and riddled with variations and clauses that are only understood by the participants. Sometimes an established game takes a completely new and unexpected turn but all the while our children’s self-esteem is held high because they are able to set new challenges or rest in their comfort zone as they feel and when they feel the need to.
3. Play is the way that children are designed to learn. It is the way that children experiment and interact with the world around them. It is an active process, children are engaged in and enthusiastic about what they are doing. It doesn’t require a schedule or curriculum or teacher. We might plan to suggest an idea, or use something read in a magazine or seen on the tv as a springboard for an activity or game but it is all flexible. Recently my daughter found a greetings card on the internet that she wanted to draw. By the time she had finished it looked nothing like the original but she had used it to inspire her and created her own picture. It wasn’t a planned activity but it was a valid learning experience.
Even when children are relaxing or doing something low key, their brains are busy sorting and organising all the information that it has been gathering in recent moments or days and connecting it with ideas from previous weeks or months. They even learn when they are sleeping. Trusting our children to play according to their own needs, actively or reservedly, loudly or quietly, intently or fleetingly, ultimately helps them to find their interests and their passions and their own learning preferences.
4. Play is the way that children make sense of the world. At this moment in time this is vitally important. As our children play through imaginary games they in cooperate many themes from the world that they live in. Their imaginary worlds are places where they can control the input and direction, and they use these worlds to play through complex adult ideas. There are many types of play-therapy built on this notion but left to their own devices children naturally work through day to day interactions and experiences in play form.
My youngest child especially likes playing with barbies. They are played with on a daily basis. A lot of the play currently revolves around them going to different places in cars, boats, and planes. She explains freely that they are travelling to the garden because for them that is actually a really long way and they don’t have to stay home. It is her way of working through staying at home and as she takes them to the beach (sand pit) and the swimming pool (paddling pool) she travels with them in her imagination and is free from the restrictions of the real world.
The reality of children’s lives is that they are often powerless and at the whim of schedules and events that they have little control over. At this moment, their play parks are closed and their friends are only virtually available, places they frequent and activities that participate in are closed and they can’t even go to the shops when adults venture out to buy food. They are left with only their imaginations where they have absolute power and control and they use it to create ever complex worlds and games where they can explore the oddities of reality in a safe place that they created. It helps them to work through what is happening around them and always has done but now it seems appropriate more than ever to give them the opportunity to do this.
5. You can do it too. Adults aren’t always the best at playing in the same way that children are but there are some games and activities that we can join in with really easily. Some things seem to span the generations better than others. Board games and card games, nerf wars, arts and crafts, ball games, reading/listening to stories together, computer games, hide and seek, quizzes, Lego, dollies, watching films together. You don’t have to join in all the time but you can join in sometimes and it will be fun and you will have a good time with your children and build a happy, content, memory together.
During a time in humanity which is stressful and uncertain in many respects, you can create a moment of positive connection between you and your children. You have the power to make your home a place of safety and love. It can become a safe haven from a whirling world and a place where your children are happy to be and not desperate to escape from. You can be responsible for making your children smile and laugh and you can smile and laugh along with them. You can be content together in a moment of joy and rest peacefully together in a moment of escape and calm.
It sounds equally simple as it does complex
Nothing can be simpler than to just let our children have, what is effectively, an extended playtime. It is easy to do as it takes no coercion on our part, no schedule planning, no encountering resistance or ill-feeling between parties. The work we do in supporting their play seems pleasant and straight forward as we provide resources and equipment for their continued pursuits. It might even be that we get to participate and have fun with our children.
It seems complex because it is not school and we wrestle with the idea our children are falling behind. But this time we have been given is an opportunity to pause in our children’s lives and maybe discover something new about themselves. What makes them tick? What do they really enjoy? What interests would they pursue if they had the time and luxury of choice? It is an opportunity for parents to get to know our children and for our children to know themselves better.
It is okay to let your children play all day.