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

23 thoughts on “The Beauty and Chaos of Free Play

  1. Thank you so much for your post. My granddaughter (7) recently visited and she pulled out my box of loose parts. She has played with that box since she was a toddler. I left her alone to “do her thing” and came back to a very detailed and organized dollhouse complete with bathrooms, showers, sinks, a pool, a video room — all from tile samples, blocks, stones, and bits of fabric. I left it for a week or so because I could not bring myself to dismantle her masterpiece. When I did, there was such a sense of intimacy there. It was as if I were looking directly into this marvelous brain by observing her thinking made visible. Thank you for providing this experience with your students. It is a wonderful way for children to demonstrate their knowledge and try out new ideas.

    1. Thank you for your comment. What a lucky girl she is to have a Grandma who keeps a box of loose parts to play with and values what she does so much to leave it in place. I love your comment that it is as if you were looking into her marvellous brain. So true! Through their play, we gain insight into their world and thinking.

  2. Scaffolding play at the right moment,comes more easily when you know the children well,their needs,their personalities,the mentors that could possibly be in the group.
    But I believe if you trust the children,you empower them to take on challenges,and they in turn will know you are there in a supportive role.
    Asking open questions inspires them to reflect on their intentions and ideas.
    Your service is well resourced,so you are blessed,many are not, but children will improvise ,if they feel they need to with something else,
    Being at their level on the floor is very important,to listen to the dialogue,encourage and redirect the play ,if need be.
    I was a teacher for 27 years, but I am now retired at 66 years. But teacher’s do not really ever retire.
    I would like to start a Remida, but it may be too time consuming at my age.
    My teaching is driven by the Reggio approach. I have visited Reggio ,met Carla Rinaldi,visited one of the schools and saw the wonderful work the Aterialist’s do. There Remida was simply amazing.thankyou for your post.
    Vivian McDermott

  3. Thank you so much for writing this post! There were so many times that I found myself nodding along. I particularly loved the picture at the top of the post. I think that we so often share the “neat learning,” and are more reluctant to share the messiness that is often such rich learning and play. Your last paragraph really has me thinking. I’m wondering about this line: “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.” How do you find that your focused materials, discussion, and documentation varies from your free play ones? How do you use the “free play” that’s happening to inspire this other learning? I think that these are the kinds of conversations that we have to have more as educator teams, especially as we navigate the new K document.


  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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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