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Self Directed Play

by Steve Maas
Friday, October 4, 2019

Children playing at recessMaria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child.” One of my favorite topics is play. I define play as: activity for enjoyment or recreation rather than for serious or practical purpose, it is self directed. Play helps our children develop curiosity, social intelligence, creativity, and both physical and mental health. These skills are at least as important as IQ when looking at future success in life. 

Dr. Peter Gray, an evolutionary developmental psychologist, wrote in his book, Free to Learn, “Research studies have shown repeatedly that adults who have a great deal of freedom as to how and when to do their work commonly experience that work as play, even – in fact, especially – when the work is difficult. In contrast, people who must follow others’ directions, with little creative input of their own, rarely experience their work as play. Moreover, dozens of research studies have shown that when people choose to perform some task, they perform it more fully and effectively than when they feel compelled by others to perform it.” 

Child swingingAt The Children’s House, play is valued as an important part of children’s development. We have recently extended recess and the children have always had the ability to play with things of their choosing, they just call it “work.” Students at The Children’s House do not have a teacher telling them which activity to choose or how long to use it. You will often see things being left out overnight so the work can resume in the morning. There are very few products of their work because it is undertaken for the joy of doing it and not in order to create a product. I have often observed children polishing a mirror to a fine shine only to see them start right back at the beginning. They are not polishing the mirror to make it shine, they are building themselves and working on mastery. 

“Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiencing the environment.”

- Maria Montessori