Play without agenda

The last two weeks have blown apart a lot of my preconceptions about parenting and education. One of them: The Importance of Educational Activities. You know what? I have learned something big. Kids need to Just Play. A lot, and what they want – not what you think they need – to play. Just play, not complete educational tasks dressed up as games, not “skill up” through teaching apparatus dressed up as toys. Just play.

I loved Peter Gray’s article, Children are suffering a severe deficit of play. To quote Gray, an evolutionary biologist who has made a study of the way humans (and other animals) have evolved to learn:

“Learning versus playing. That dichotomy seems natural to people such as my radio host, my debate opponent, my President, my Education Secretary — and maybe you. Learning, according to that almost automatic view, is what children do in school and, maybe, in other adult-directed activities.Playing is, at best, a refreshing break from learning. From that view, summer vacation is just a long recess, perhaps longer than necessary. But here’s an alternative view, which should be obvious but apparently is not: playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.”

Having just read Gray’s book, ‘Free to Learn’, I’ve just become more familiar with this idea. The tough part is that we are not limiting play to the idyllic outdoor play. Kids  love playing outdoors as much as anything, but play also takes place around technology. I absolutely loved Penelope Trunk’s blog post on Why Limiting Video Games is Delusional. It made total sense to me. That said, it also scared me a bit. The prospect of unlimiting my child’s “screen time” (previously rationed out in 45-minute slots) filled me with slight nausea. What if the addictive juggernaut of video games and iPad and Playstation just caught him in its grip and never let go?

From conversations a friend who has done just this (unlimited video games) and from other accounts I read, the pattern seems to be: at first, the kid OD’s on screen time, until they realise it really is an unlimited resource. Then he will settle down. He’ll still play and watch a lot, but more driven out of their own interest in particular games, fields of interest, or the desire to explore something. In their own way.

Oh, Kolya’s face when I told him the screen time would be unlimited. He still hasn’t stopped checking with me to make sure there isn’t a catch. “Mom, can I have scr… – ” and he stops, to check I’m not going to say no. (And I have to breathe deep and keep trusting myself and my beliefs in order to say yes – because it’s not all that easy watching your kid leap into a screen world again, when it’s something that doesn’t appeal to you at all, which video games don’t. Although I have to admit that “limiting screen time” seems pretty idiotic and hypocritical from someone who can spend eight hours a day at a computer.) That said, there are some rules: he does have to switch off if we have other commitments to get to, or if there are other kids round and he’s playing stuff that’s not easy to share, or if they’re not interested in playing (or their parents don’t allow it).

The challenge, though, is finding games that are actually pitched at a level that is complex enough and fun enough to be interesting for him, whilst not so complex as to go over his head. Nearly-six is a tricky age when you can’t read yet, so we’re having to find games that aren’t reliant on fluent reading skills. I found that searches for apps turn up irritatingly education-obsessed reviews. Thankfully, some sites have reviews for kids BY kids, which is a better indicator of what’s actually enjoyable – not just “recommended”.

This is still a rocky road for me – I still catch myself making feeling irritable or disappointed when K has actually spent hours at a computer and still wants to switch to yet another screen. I have to catch myself not going back on this newly-instituted freedom before he’s had the chance to exercise it and genuinely find his own limits and interests within it.
I also loved this article I came across today: Cracking the ice cream maker whip. It’s exactly the point. Take away the patronising notion that kids need to be tricked into learning. They don’t. Take away the heavy judgment that if an activity doesn’t have an immediate goal or outcome, it’s worthless. There is much value in play. Enjoying yourself, being present and absorbed in something just because you like it – that is something that needs cultivating. All the rest will follow.


(This blog post is reproduced from my blog UnschoolZA.)


About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
This entry was posted in family and friends, home education and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Play without agenda

  1. Jacquie says:

    I am looking into starting a sort of unschooling type of education after this school year ends, and I was just wondering what led you to decide not to limit screen time. You may have written about it previously and if so, I apologize for asking but this is the first post of yours that I’m reading. I know a lot of resources say to let go and trust that your children will begin to choose not to always be in front of the screen but I am not so convinced. Maybe you have read something that helped you believe this? I am just asking respectfully because I’m still new at this. Thanks

  2. Lisa says:

    Hi Jacquie – I’ve written about this on my other blog, My most recent post there offers some links on the ‘unlimited screen time’ argument (which, oddly enough, I agree with) – as well as some illuminating comments from other parents who have had to figure out what works for them. I’m coming to the conclusion there’s no magic bullet solution of the one-size-fits-all variety… what works for one family won’t necessarily work for another, in exactly the same way.

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