Let them play (Part Two)

When Ella was about 2 or so, we took her to the Farm Barn – a place for kids to interact with a range of little animals, and see some bigger farm animals.

She was vaguely interested. Mildly terrified at times too.

But my clearest memory is of when she decided she’d had enough of animals and wasn’t really interested anymore. Everyone else was looking at the goats sticking their heads through the fence — Ella was in her own little world, dancing her way up a hill, getting in other people’s way, but joyfully spinning around anyway. And she was happy. She didn’t care about the goats.

And in that moment, I hoped she would always be this free. Free to never have her imagination cut off, limited, restricted – for what? To see the nice goats? For the convenience of others?

Watching her absolute freedom, I could only imagine what was going on inside her mind, where her own thoughts and creations were taking her.

And isn’t this what we would all say we want for our kids? And isn’t this the type of adults we would want them to grow into — creative, independent, adventurous?

But to get them there, we regiment and limit their autonomy and control every minute of their lives. Doesn’t that seem counterproductive?

We fear their creative twirling, what other people will think, and we stop them. Like we fear that if we don’t stop their imagination right now, they’ll still be twirling in circles at 20 years old.

They won’t be. Human beings love to learn; we love to become productive and have meaningful lives — unless that natural desire is stamped out of us.

And as it turns out, it could be our obsession with formal learning that is doing the very thing that we are so fearfully trying to avoid. Adults still spinning in circles.

Recently, after I’d been reading some things about how brains and memory work, I had a theory; when we put kids in ‘formal learning’ situations, when we make them fit a schedule, we are changing the very foundation being laid in their brains.

You see, children naturally connect everything. The boundaries between things is very fluid. Their brain plasticity is phenomenal, which is likely why they can learn so easily and absorb so much, and do things like write upside down and backwards without even thinking about it. There is not yet a fixed pathway for everything. And in play, they pretend and make-believe and practice real life things in these creative ways.

Just imagine the neural pathways, the networked foundation that is being laid where everything intertwines and is connected.

And being able to connect things like this is the very basis of creativity.

But instead of letting this process happen, we seem obsessed with thwarting it. We interrupt their play to ‘learn’.

But the contrast is stark between the type of creative learning that happens in play, and the type of learning that happens when you segregate everything and put it into an artificial environment.

When you sit that child down to learn on your schedule, what creative neural processes did you just take away from them? What brain connections will never get to be formed now?

And the more I research, the more this theory seems right; the patterns we set in their brains in childhood will be the foundation for their adult minds. Creative and with ongoing plasticity, or rigid and partitioned? That seems like an obvious choice.

So if we want our adults to be creative, why do we stop the very processes in childhood that would lay the foundation for a creative adult brain?

Why are we so obsessed with controlling ‘learning’ as if it can’t happen without our intervention and coercion?

Research shows an early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy doesn’t make any difference to their ability level down the line — those who learned earlier vs later all reached the same point by age 11.

But what is different is their love of reading — those made to learn earlier had less positive attitudes to readings – and poorer text comprehension.

Text comprehension — the part where you have to assimilate, and integrate, and connect what you are reading in order to understand it! Connect — the creative act.

Is that telling? When we divide up learning into set subjects for set times, and force this on our kids by our schedule and not theirs, are we creating the appearance of learning — they can do stuff and regurgitate what we’ve told them to learn — but not actual learning? Not creative and integrated connections that make any of that ‘learning’ actually useful?

To me this all says that play is essential. That taking this stranglehold off kid’s lives and learning is essential to their wellbeing and ability to thrive.

That we don’t need to control them to learn — that in fact, by attempting to control, we are doing the opposite.

Play is not just a nice idea, a fun thing kids do if they are given the time and freedom — it is essential, critical. And natural. The most natural way to learn. And it will continue to be for as long as we let it, and don’t systematically take it away from them.

Which seems to be happening far too young — when it perhaps shouldn’t be happening at all.

I believe somewhere inside everyone, even if they’ve never heard of natural learning or unschooling, is the capacity to trust in the natural learning process. To trust that kids do want to learn, and will learn, without coercion. That all they need is the freedom and support and access to resources and experiences. They will want to create their own life.

Because who among us doesn’t? People only cease to do anything if they are depressed or have lost hope.

Mentally healthy and emotionally whole people want to live and be productive and be part of their communities.

I believe everyone, somewhere inside them, believes in natural learning, and we know deep down that our school system fucks things up more than it helps most of the time — because we all went through it.

We are all adults now who have to unlearn what school taught us — and what it taught us has little to do with the actual ‘subjects’ we had to take. What it taught us was some combination of inferiority and entitlement; lack of trust in ourselves; inability to listen to ourselves, to act autonomously; inability to make our decisions, at least without fear of making a mistake and being punished or humiliated for it; to judge ourselves and others by comparison, rankings, grades, achievements.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

So why, if that is what schooling has done to us, do we continue to support the system that did it to all of us? We even go on to become teachers and policy makers, we have children and send them there. We continue this cycle. Why?

It seems absurd to me now that I look at it…. But also, I get it.

Because it’s hard to look at. It’s hard to see the issues and admit that it’s not just going to take another educational reform or some new policies — it’s going to take complete societal change.

I get it. To make an unschooling approach work on a larger scale, we need whole communities to be on board. (In fact, we need *communities* full stop.)

Everything is intertwined; it’s not just the school system, it’s everything — the way we live, the way we work, the way run things, it would all have to change. And it would have to change simultaneously.

And we are so used to everything being separate and segregated and controlled by someone else, that we find it hard to even comprehend how we could do things differently.

Ironic, isn’t it — we’ve trained ourselves into this. We’ve ‘taught’ ourselves into the box we are now trapped in.

But maybe, even if we can’t quite see how things can be different, we can at least start to make things different for our kids.

If we let them play more now, maybe they will have the creativity we so often lack. Maybe they will see the connections. Maybe the issues in society — the mental health, the loneliness, the division — maybe that will all become a non-issue in their future, because they learned to be connected, creative and compassionate human beings right now.

They won’t have to enter the world at 18 and unlearn all the crap like we did.

Maybe if we trust them right now, give them respect and autonomy now, even as children, as toddlers, as babies — recognising in them the human spirit that is very much their own from the moment they were conceived, recognising in them the adults they are already forming into, and not treating them like property or extensions of ourselves — maybe they would grow up to intrinsically, deeply and wholly trust, respect and love themselves.

Hurt people, hurt people. But whole people love. Whole people create whole communities.

Maybe it’s not our job to lead them into the future we create for them — maybe it’s them who will lead us into the future they create for themselves.

And what if all we had to do was let them play?

Take our fearful hands off, and let them play.

<< Let them play: Part One


Sources: (emphasis mine)

“(T)he early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children’s reading development, and may be damaging. By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who stared at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.


“A recent letter signed by around 130 early childhood education experts, including myself, published in the Daily Telegraph (11 Sept 2013) advocated an extension of informal, play-based pre-school provision and a delay to the start of formal ‘schooling’ in England from the current effective start until the age of seven (in line with a number of other European countries who currently have higher levels of academic achievement and child well-being).”

“…have identified play as an adaptation which evolved in early human social groups. It enabled humans to become powerful learners and problem-solvers. Neuroscientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.”

“… a number of studies have documented the loss of play opportunities for children over the second half of the 20th century and demonstrated a clear link with increased indicators of stress and mental health problems.


“Children, he argued, require the support of real situations and objects with which to work
out ideas through play.”

“The role of play in supporting children’s development of ‘metacognitive’ and self-regulatory abilities… our developing awareness of our own cognitive and emotional processes…”

“Even the most playfully inclined children will not be able to play, sufficiently for them to
reap the benefits in terms of their learning and development, if they are not given the time,
the space and the independence to develop their own spontaneous and self-initiated play

“What emerges from this is that, in their play, children appropriate different spaces and features within their environment which are quite unpredictable by adults, and that the richest play spaces are mostly natural and unplanned.

“….play supports novel neural connections and changes the architectural structure of significant brain regions.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *