What comes to mind when you hear the word “play?”

For some, it may conjure up memories of carefree summer days spent riding bikes, building forts in the backyard, exploring in the woods, or playing dolls in the shade of an oak tree.

For others, it may bring to mind ice skating lessons, bowling leagues, and little league baseball. This begs the question: Does one define organized sports as play? In the purest sense of the word, probably not. Though there are enormous benefits to organized sports, children can thrive without participation in these kinds of activities but children cannot thrive without open ended, free play. So what exactly is “play?”

According to early childhood experts, open-ended or “free” play has three characteristics:

  1. It is initiated by children,
  2. Intrinsically motivating, and
  3. Guided by child initiated rules.

Photo Credit, via creative Commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/poiphotography/

Photo Credit, via creative Commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/poiphotography/

Open ended play experiences are spontaneously chosen by children—no one tells them to do it—and the sheer pleasure of the experience motivates them to do it over and over again. The goal is not to produce a product—it is driven by the pure enjoyment of the process.

At first glance it may seem that open-ended play has no rules, but closer observation will reveal this is not the case. Free play is very much governed by rules—rules that are determined by the children, not adults!

The rules of play are usually not obvious until they are broken. When a violation occurs it becomes very apparent how the unspoken rules are understood by the majority of the children.

For example, a group of kids are playing “house.” Each child is assigned a role and the unspoken expectation is that that he or she will remain true to the words and actions of their particular role. Johnny has been assigned the role of the family dog but suddenly begins acting like the mailman. What happens?

You will hear cries of, “Hey, you can’t do that. A dog can’t stand up and bring the mail.”

The unspoken rules of play have been broken and Johnny will either have to return to his assigned role or skillfully negotiate a new role to play.

The characteristics just described are the reason organized sports are not considered open-ended free play. A sporting event is something that is planned—not spontaneously initiated by kids. These highly structured activities are guided by rules established by someone other than the children and are typically enforced by adults.

Organized sports can teach children many important life lessons such as team work, perseverance and sportsmanship; however, this form of activity is not a crucial requirement for healthy development whereas open-ended play is a necessity.

What’s been your experience with “free” play? Did any light bulbs go off after seeing “free” play more clearly?

How do you foster this in your home or teaching environment?