Why kids need freedom for uninterrupted play

 *The beautiful playsilks you see in this post were gifted to me by the lovely Sarah’s Silks

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for childrenplay is serious learning.” – Fred Rogers

Once upon a time, I had no understanding nor appreciation for the message in this quote from Fred Rogers. I remember, as a new mum, thinking that it was my job to teach my children as much as I could to best prepare them for the academics they would require in formal schooling.

I frequently interrupted my children’s play with little nuggets of knowledge and wisdom to help advance their thinking. I gave them toys which recited letters and numbers so that when I wasn’t there to teach them, the toys could do it for me.

Little did I know that my interference in their play was, in actual fact, undermining the learning they were naturally pursuing. By trying to teach them these things through explicit instruction and complex toys, I was not only taking away their opportunity to learn it richly for themselves through their own discoveries, I was robbing them of the type of play time which would lay the foundations for their formal academic learning later in life.

Why kids need freedom for uninterrupted play

Thankfully, I was privileged to discover Magda Gerber’s approach to raising children through Janet Lansbury’s website, when my eldest children were young.

I soon realised the importance of play in my children’s learning development and my role in this was far from what I thought it was. Gerber’s approach taught me the value in giving children freedom for uninterrupted play which meant that, for the most part, I needed to stay out of it.

I learned that, in play, children give themselves tasks based on their own curiosities. 

They need simple play objects; items which they can manipulate freely and completely to make sense of them, to explore their properties, to look for relationships between them and to experiment with and use to test hypotheses.

This is true for even the youngest of infants. With simple play objects, a young child can explore and experiment to their heart’s desire. They are programmed to explore and learn in this way.

We call it play, but, in actual fact, as Rogers’ suggested, it is their work and it is critical to their development of many skills and processes.

Dr Emmi Pikler, a Hungarian paediatrician  renowned for her work with infants in care, together with her colleagues, counted 107 different forms of play manipulation in their observations of children in play.

These play manipulations and the investigations that occur through them are how a child learns how to learn. They also represent the early development of academic skills such as mathematics and science.

Different forms of play manipulation include touching, grasping, pushing, rubbing, wobbling, scratching, shaking, turning, pinching, banging etc. Each manipulation is an experimentation through which the child gathers information making meaning of their experiences.

At first a child will focus on one object. Then, they will look at two at the same time. Mathematical reasoning such as comparison of size, weight and shape as well as spacial relationships (stacking etc) becomes more complex at this point. 

When a child discovers a new object, it is common for them to use simple forms of play manipulation such as touching, grasping and waving before moving on to more complex forms.

Play manipulation in action

I noticed this progression in play manipulation when I introduced my 2 year old to these gorgeous playsilks from Sarah’s Silks, this week. I placed them in her play space and observed as she explored these new objects.

At first she touched them with just a couple of fingers. I could see her using this form of manipulation as an initial test of the silks’ properties. Satisfied, she then grasped a handful of the soft, slippery material before opening her fingers to let it fall back to the floor in a pile.

She looked at me, seeming to take comfort from the fact that I was observing her experience, attentive and responding positively to her explorations.

She lay her head on the pile. The silk is cool to the touch and I imagine the coolness and softness gave her a pleasant sensory experience. She did this for quite some time. Even opting to grab her lovey and suck her thumb as if imagining she could fall asleep on this glorious pile.

Over the next few days, I watched her exploration of the playsilks develop. Her manipulation of this open-ended resource varied in response to her curiosity. I did not need to show her or teach her anything and I could see her learning processes unfolding right before my eyes – a learning process completely and utterly perfect for her.

She would throw them in the air and watch as they floated to the floor.

She would place the silks over her head, leaving them there for several moments, experiencing their lightness and their semi-transparent properties, before feeling them slide back to the ground.

She would build on this with a game of peek-a-boo. Giggling with me as she ‘hid’ from my vision before revealing herself over and over.

She placed the silks, one by one, into a small cane basket. Pressing them down to make them fit and looking at them in wonderment as they seemed to recoil back into a fluffed out position.

She wrapped a single silk around her neck so that it looked like a cape and then let it go and watched it as it fell to the ground, laughing in delight as she repeated this experiment several times.

She repeatedly threw a playsilk over me, blowing it each time so that it would fall off my head and onto the floor.

She asked me to tie a knot in one so that it would stay in place over her shoulders.  I did and she wore the silk as a cape as she explored other play objects in her space.

Observing my daughter manipulate the playsilks so extensively in such a short amount of time, I can see just how quickly 107 different forms of play manipulation can rack up. 

I have repeatedly observed similar interactions between infants and play objects in my parent-infant classes. Their engagement with simple play objects develop and become more complex over time.

I am grateful to have this understanding of play development so that I can appreciate the processes that children in my care are working through and ensure I do not interrupt their flow.

Have you taken note of the way your children interact with play objects? Next time you are observing their play, have a look for the different types of play manipulation they work through.

My parenting is inspired by Magda Gerber’s RIE approach which I learned of through Janet Lansbury’s blog. If you are interested in learning more you can find some good information here or I highly recommend these books:

Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition)  ~ Magda Gerber

Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities — From the Very Start
~ Magda Gerber

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting  ~ Janet Lansbury

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury

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1 thought on “Why kids need freedom for uninterrupted play

  1. kenzie

    Yes! Giving children that time to play without adult involvement is so very important for their development! In my classroom, we have an hour of free choice time. This time is for child-directed play, with very little involvement from us teachers (unless children want us to play too!) When we do join in on the fun, we let the kids lead the way in play, and follow their lead. Watching the kids play on their own is also a great time to make those important observations which help when it comes to scaffolding activities for their developmental levels.


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