One often hears about the chronic lack of free play time available to children today. With more school, more homework, more activities, and more helicopter parenting than ever, it is rare that children (either alone or in groups) have the opportunity to play freely without any adult supervision or guidance.
However, I experienced the reality of that first-hand when spending Christmas holiday time with friends (and their kids) at a country cottage.
The lazy winter holiday days stretched out, and large meals and even larger amounts of sweets were being consumed by the kids at all hours of the day and night. One mild Sunday morning, I thought it was high time to get the kids outside in the snow. But how to pry them away from their screens, their pajamas, and their sweets?
Let Kids Lead the Way
I decided to conduct an experiment. I invited the kids for a “bum-sliding” competition down the snowy slopes outside my friend’s chalet. They were interested and asked dozens of questions on their way to putting on their snow pants, hats, and scarves. “What are we going to do? Where are we going to slide? How will it work?” I purposely decided not to give them any details about what was to follow. One of the girls, Alyssa (8 years-old), said “I don’t want to compete.” I told her not to worry, that she could still slide and not take part in any competition if she didn’t want to.
Once outside, I simply told the kids that we (they) needed to find the best spot in the woods for bum-sliding. And then they were off! Running off in different directions all over the woods in search of the best track. That was all the intervention and direction I would give that day. I would let the kids direct how the rest of their time and the activity would go.
The bum-sliding event didn’t last very long because much of the snow had melted and only a couple of inches had replaced it that week. But the group of five kids, including our 8-year-old son (the only homeschooled kid in the group), ended up exploring down by the half-frozen river. “Look, a cat!” cried Ella (10 years-old). “That’s not a cat,” said Dana, also aged 10. “It’s a beaver or a hedge-hog.” The mystery to discover what exactly that black animal was took another fifteen minutes as the kids jockeyed among the trees and rocks to get a better glimpse of the creature in question. I just stood by and watched, speaking only when spoken to.
As this was happening, the kids explored the frozen parts of the river, stomping their feet with each step to ensure the ice under them was solid. They stuck closely to each other, led by 12-year-old Zack, forming a sort of adventure party. Each kid had their own take. “Be careful, don’t walk on that thin ice over there,” warned Ella. “I can slide on this ice over here.” said Dana. Before you knew it, all the kids were having a sliding-on-the-ice competition. A thin hanging birch tree acted as a catapult as the kids swung from the tree and slid on their bums across the ice.
I never once told any child to “be careful.” I simply watched, never interjecting words or advice, even when I was really tempted to do so! I saw how the kids were careful (even too careful) without me having to utter a word. Everyone naturally was on the lookout for each other and took care of one another.
I could see that some kids would look my way after swinging on the tree and sliding, to get some sort of approval or verbal validation. I offered no such words of encouragement. I was steadfast in my role as observer, only offering advice when asked (which wasn’t very often).
The kids became so engrossed with their moment to moment experience that they completely forgot about the original reason we went outside!
The Joy of Self-Directed Activity
A few of the children suggested to the group that we walk to the lake nearby to slide on the ice there. All the kids agreed. As we walked back up the steep hill toward the lake, Ella exclaimed “this is so much fun!”
I said to her: “You know why? Because it is kid-created fun, not adult-created.” As soon as I said that, Dana chimed in: “Yeah, adult games are boring.” I had to smile inside. Without any prodding, these kids were confirming what proponents of self-directed learning have been saying for decades.
We walked to the frozen lake and the kids spent another half-hour sliding over there. They planned, designed, and made their own sliding ramp out of an old dock, and had oodles of fun making it as fast and icy as possible while they took turns zooming down.
On the way back to the chalet, after the fun at the lake, Ella came up to me and said, “We were gone almost an hour and a half! That was so much fun! I can’t believe how fast the time passed. It was so much fun to just play.”
No coaching, no prodding on my part. Straight out of the mouth of babes. The experiment had proven itself. My heart was elated, but at the same time felt sad. For I realized how little freedom kids today have to play freely without adult interference, direction, or supervision.