The Beauty and Chaos of Free Play

No, not a beautiful provocation but instead a picture of the real chaos that results from children deeply engaged in self-directed and exploratory play with materials – beautiful nonetheless.

Alison Gopnik, in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, muses that children are designed to explore and that “the messiness of children makes a special contribution to human evolvability.” (p. 31-32) I take heart in this message, especially as I think of the creative energy and the jubilant manipulation and transportation of materials and loose parts I witness in my own Kindergarten classroom each day and the resulting chaotic mess of those materials that often results.

I love the joyful learning that I see when children are engaged in free play, exploration and creative thought with materials, using them in their own innovative ways as loose parts. I often find any carefully presented centres I try to create are soon used in novel and other-than-intended ways and I have to resist (not always with success) the urge to say, ‘but wait…”. And while resisting the urge often results in a gigantic tidying time, it also results in unexpected and joyful learning. (The photograph attached to this post was an incredible jungle joyfully and collaboratively designed and an experience rich in learning.) I often have to ask myself, is it more important for children to engage in this exploratory free play or to engage with the lovely provocation I have so carefully laid out?

Gopnik mentions the need for providing a protected space for exploration (p. 36). I believe the need for the environment to support, and for the educators to entertain, this free exploration is important. As Vivian Gussin Paley reminds us in her book A Child’s Work, “There is no activity for which young children are better prepared than fantasy play,” and that it is “…the glue that binds together all other pursuits.” (p. 8)  From this type of play comes important learning and, from our observation of it, the educator research we need to further support the children in their learning. Providing a ‘protected space’ (physically and cognitively) for this type of play is not simple and it is not unplanned. It requires a carefully planned environment with great attention to materials and organization. It requires thoughtful interactions with children during their play. It requires intentional teaching of routines and the fostering of self-regulation. It requires astute observation of the actions, words and intentions of the young learners involved. Above all, it requires patience, understanding and a strong belief in the capabilities of young learners.

I find it is always a balancing act – honouring and providing time and space for the chaos of children’s free and exploratory play and at the same time provoking their thinking, learning and development by engaging them with focused materials, discussion and documentation. Such is the art – and joyful chaos – of early years education.

Written by Sandra Rosekat


17 thoughts on “The Beauty and Chaos of Free Play

  1. I love watching children learn from the exploration of play. Using materials in new and imaginative ways. I truly feel like I am teaching when I can say “that is a great idea,” when the children are leading play and creating. That is what learning is all about, expanding the mind.

  2. This is just so kool to see children being allowed to have fun and even better to take the responsibility of tidying up at the end.

    1. Like many of you out there, I have read a great deal by the educators of Reggio Emilia. There are so many inspirational early years educators out there. Twelve Best Practices for Early Childhood Education by Ann Lewin-Benham is a wonderful read about key important considerations and I have learned a lot from the work of Vivian Gussin Paley. Her book A Child’s Work talks about the importance of pretend play. Jean Clinton’s words on the importance of relationship always inspire me as well.

  3. What about toddlers? I work with 1 to 3 year olds in a mixed age group family daycare setting in my home. It’s hard sometimes with very limited space to provide the space and materials for older kids with safety for younger or to let the younger ones play without the older children taking over. Any tips? Group of 6 kids.

    1. Just choose different materials.
      The options for “loose parts” is essentially endless. Try a Google search.. but off the top of my head..
      Larger diameter wooden cross sections
      Large, conical spool (like used in garment industry)
      Round metal juice lids
      Off the top of my head.. we always uses natural or recycled materials. I worked with 3 to 5 tho. But there ARE safe loose parts for under 1’s even!

    2. It’s a great opportunity with mixed ages to teach respectful relationships, taking turns and sharing, encouraging the younger ones. Outdoor on a mat on a smaller scale would work perfectly.

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