True Play is Truly True

Image credit: <a href=''>prometeus / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Last week, my friend Deirdre and I took to the beach for some fun in the sun with our elementary-aged kids. It wasn’t long before they retreated to the water’s edge and got very busy. First, by jumping over waves, then by hauling over pieces of drift wood, seaweed, digging holes and picking flowers for the finishing touches on a fort they had constructed. They mapped out a plan, worked together, problem solved, used their muscles and bodies and had a great time doing what came naturally.  Not one argument. Not one, “I’m bored.” Not one whine or “that’s mine.” Ingredients? Spontaneity, open-ended time and self-direction.

Deirdre mentioned that she was glad we had neglected to bring the sand toys….not that there is anything wrong with a pail and shovel but we agreed that not having an object to interact with put the kids on equal footing with one another, forced them to create, initiate and take charge of their time and space in a more imaginative way.

When we get into nature, or spaces that resemble blank slates where we can play as we wish, the sky’s the limit. As many bells and whistles that our toys and crafts have, they aren’t necessarily promoters of growth, imagination, curiosity and fantasy. As Author David Elkind, Ph.D. puts it in his book, The Power of Play:  “An unintended consequence of using toys to promote social acceptance and positive self-esteem is that it encourages conformity. Children come to see toys as vehicles of social acceptance rather than launching pads to imagination and fantasy.”

I am grateful for the friend who told me about Horizon Hills Preschool (Thousand Oaks, CA), whose teaching philosophy is that children learn best through self-directed play. At this school, if a child wants to paint a picture while wearing a costume they had put on in the dress-up area, they can. If they want to roller skate for 20 minutes, a teacher is not going to tell them that their time is up (unless there is another child waiting!) Children not only have the freedom to engage in an activity until their bodies and minds feel ready to let it go, but they have the opportunity to master a skill and confidence around a particular activity if they wish.  By being able to collect and hunt for bugs for as long as he needed, made one child develop an interest and knowledge in insects and later, science. This environment helped me to make sure that throughout their childhood, my kids have unstructured time so they can gravitate and explore the things they connect to naturally, which fosters a love for learning and perhaps a growing appreciation for a particular subject, sport or hobby because of the freedom given to explore it.

Taking it one step further when it comes to education and academics, learning a particular subject or concept that might be challenging can often be more interesting and actually fun when it involves a play element…especially if those reasoning skills aren’t quite developed yet. But academics and whole-child learning is a post for another day!

I leave you with this wonderful song by Fred Rogers, for beneath the play, is the child, and the child directs his/her play experience better than anyone else. Who knows just where the two meet…you would have to follow your children’s lead to find out.

I’m Still Myself Inside

I can put on a hat, or put on a coat,

Or wear a pair of glasses or sail in a boat.

I can change all my names

And find a place to hide.

I can do almost anything, but I’m still myself inside.

I can go far away, or dream anything,

or wear a scary costume or act like a king.

I can change all my names

And find a place to hide.

I can do almost anything,

But I’m still myself

I’m still myself

I’m still myself inside.



  1. Linda, I am so fortunate to have a friend like you whith whom I can engage and speak about the philosophies of life and rearing children. It inspires me and achieves future through communication. Our children are so incredibly lucky to have had that opportunity of play at a school whose philosophy has not yet been swallowed by the popular media and technological advances. We all learn best by play and creative action. There is nothing better in this world than hearing a children laugh. Keep on writing my incredible friend.

  2. You put that so beautifully, Deirdre…yes, I am so thankful too that HH provided that opportunity for creative expression through basic, genuine forms of play….thank you for sharing this journey of parenting, freedom and friendship!

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