The power of independent play

Lily, rosy-cheeked and sopping wet in her long-sleeved t-shirt and leggings, clambered aboard Carina. ‘Mummy, please come and look’, she begged. I put aside the supper I was mid-way through preparing and followed her off the boat.

All afternoon, in wind and rain, Lily, Katie and their friend, Ruben, had been hard at work. Having spent the morning making comfortable homes out of shoe-boxes for their army of pet snails, they had then turned to making a home for themselves. On a scrubby patch of overgrown hillside near the cemetery in Alcoutim, they had cleared a patch of land, woven branches into walls which they then covered with long strips of paper they had found. Bricks were carried in to make seats and shelves to store their precious found objects – cans, bottles, margarine tubs. Wandering up around the castle in search of objects for their den, they had found branches recently lopped off a lemon tree. They dragged these back to the den to give the place a pleasant aroma.

The rain had stopped but the ground was wet when I followed Lily off the boat and up from the pontoon in the gathering dusk. From the edge of the scrubby hillside there was no hint of their four hours of labour. But, as I scrambled down the slippery bank in my inappropriate Crocs (will I ever learn?), a circular gap in the canes and trees began to reveal itself. I peered in through lemon branches to see Katie and Ruben sitting inside, Katie with a big grin on her face, eager to show off what they had made. ‘How do I get in?’ I asked. Ruben moved a branch aside so I could step in and then closed the ‘door’ behind me.

I squatted on the floor of the low-ceilinged den as the three of them proudly showed off all the features of the den – the brick seats, the storage space, the front and rear entrances, the addition of the lemons.

After visiting for a little while I left them to it, and told them to come home in half an hour. The next day, after all, was Monday, the start of the new school week, and we all needed to get to bed at a reasonable hour. The next evening, and the one after that, as I prepared dinner, they went off to check on their den, to make sure no-one had disturbed it. They borrowed my head torch each evening and off they went in the dark.

What struck me about the whole endeavour was how palpably proud they all were of what they had achieved. These three – two seven year olds and an eight year old – had spent a good four hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon cooperating, planning, using their imaginations, designing, constructing, building. They had made something that was their own and that they had made together. There was no adult around to say ‘Maybe you should put this here’, or ‘Maybe it would work better if you tried this’. It was theirs alone. They owned it.

My children enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom and independence. They have boundaries and rules but, compared to living in a town or living in many other parts of the world, their boundaries are vast, as are the boundaries of most of the other children who live here. That’s just the way it is.

They spend a great deal of time outdoors, playing with stones and rocks, trees and soil, using their imaginations to create worlds of their own invention. At home they often plan and organise their next adventure, and when they are out and about they make up stories and worlds and make and transform objects on the spot. A friend from London once expressed her astonishment at how easily our children amused themselves, as we watched my daughters and her 11-year old daughter create their own ‘restaurant’ out of the stones and rubble and tree branches we found up at the old windmill. It was many years since my friend had seen her daughter so engaged and happily occupied for so long with objects that were decidedly non-technological or human-made.

We hear a lot these days about children not playing enough, or spending too much time indoors, or of having too much of their time planned and organised, so that they lack the time and freedom for their imaginations and creativity to run riot, and they lack the space to learn to organically cooperate, share and work together. My girls are technology savvy, and they play a little soccer and basketball in after school clubs. But far more of their time is spent doing things of their own invention.

As a parent, it can be difficult to give them that space and time to be themselves and to learn by themselves and from and with each other. Our lives are busy, we are constricted by timetables and schedules. But I think we also often create busyness for our children, when there is no need to do so. Give them space and they will keep themselves busy. Children are naturally curious and inventive. They want to learn and socialise and create and, left to their own devices, they will do so.

Ask anyone who knows me, I’m quite controlling by nature – I like order and I like everyone else around me to be ordered and organised too. So, taking a step back and recognising the children’s own agency and need for space to be themselves, is something I have had to learn, and something I continue to learn every day. But I want my daughters to grow up to be happy, confident, independent and capable women, and giving them the space and freedom to be playful, imaginative, creative and happy children, I hope, will influence the adults they will become.

Neither of them have mentioned the den in the past few days. Maybe they will want to visit it this weekend. Maybe they will never think of it again. Lily has now taken to cooking. She has been reading one of her cookbooks for days now. Yesterday evening she asked me to go with her to the shop, where she produced a shopping list she had written. We bought what she needed and this evening she plans on cooking dinner for Katie and me. Will I have the self-restraint to not get involved, unless she asks for my assistance? In my kitchen, my domain?! I’ll just have to try my best.

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Let’s pretend

When was the last time you pretended to be someone you’re not? When was the last time you made up a story about yourself? Made up a fake history? Made up non-existent relatives and friends? When was the last time you pretended you had a baby when you don’t? Or a horse? Or a dragon?

Chances are, if you’re an adult (and not an actor or a professional story-teller) then you haven’t indulged in this type of behaviour in a long time. Or if you have, then perhaps people are whispering behind your back and suggesting you seek professional help. If you’re a child, you’ve probably done it in the past hour.

If I was to record every word Katie says over a 24-hour period, my guess is that ‘pretend’ would be one of her most common words. She’s doing it right now, as I write. ‘Lily, pretend you come in the door’, ‘Lil, pretend she’s your aunt’, ‘Pretend this is my horse’, ‘Pretend my dinosaur is your dinosaur’s sister’, ‘Pretend I’m going on a plane’ and next thing the sitting room’s been transformed into the inside of an airplane with refreshments, safety announcements and arrivals to Egypt, China or Mexico.

All day they play these pretend games. Sometimes the pretending is accompanied by dressing up. Back home on Carina they rifle through the dressing-up bag or the hats, gloves and scarves bag; at Grandma’s house they use whatever is around – towels, tea towels, sheets – anything to transform their appearance. Sometime they use props – bags, cushions, books, chairs – anything that can be imaginatively transformed into something else. They pretend indoors and outdoors, upstairs and downstairs, at home and when they’re out in the world. Left to their own devices, their imaginations run amok with inspiration from the books they read, the movies and TV shows they watch, and their real life experiences.

Through it all they are learning – learning about relationships, learning to cooperate and to work together, learning to create and tell stories. Through such imaginative and free-form unstructured play they are learning about themselves and each other. Reality is inconsequential and nothing is beyond the realms of possibility.

At what point in our lives do we start to rein in our imaginative impulses? Or do we simply divert those impulses elsewhere? Do we succumb to peer pressure or pressure from elders to ‘grow up’, ‘get real’, ‘stop wasting time’? But it’s not time wasted. For children the serious business of pretending is time well spent learning about the world, about how people interact with each other, and about how to treat each other fairly. Whether they are pretending to be dragons or princesses, physics defying space travellers or dessert shop owners, I see them working out and negotiating cooperative working relationships. They want their alter-egos to be treated the way they themselves want to be treated. They act out aspirations, and they act out behaviour they observe around them.

I hope my children continue to be un-self-consciously imaginative for a long time to come. I love to hear their imaginations run wild, taking them (and sometimes me, when I’m included in their games) to unexpected places. Who knows where their imaginations will lead them.

Now, anyone up for a game of ‘Pretend my dinosaur’s flying this plane’?

Kick! Kick! Keep going!

A year ago, in the crystal clear waters of Enseada de San Francisco in Ria de Muros, Galicia, Lily swam for the first time. She lifted her legs from the sandy sea bed and splashed and kicked and stayed afloat for two seconds. ‘Just one more time’, she said, and tried again, all afternoon trying and trying again ‘Just one more time’, so that by the end of the afternoon she was swimming for four or five seconds at a time and covering five metres.

But, like everything children learn, her swimming didn’t progress in a smooth linear fashion. There were days when she didn’t want to swim. There were days when she grew frustrated by her attempts and simply couldn’t swim. There were days when she preferred to paddle around with the support of a rubber ring or foam noodle. And there were days when she swam beautifully, making clear progress, wanting to succeed, working hard to push herself to do better. She’s done it all herself. I never intervene or push her. I offer advice and (physical) support when it’s requested. When it comes to swimming, I’m more interested in instilling a love of swimming and playing in water. I hope they learn from the example I set. I sometimes exaggerate my own swimming movements, so they can see the mechanics. But when we are in the water it’s play time. And through play comes learning.

Since Lily’s first tentative but determined strokes in July last year, she can now swim a width of a pool. I don’t know when she figured that out. After watching dolphins one day last year in Ria de Arousa, both girls decided they wanted to swim like dolphins. Katie put her head underwater for the first time (something she now rejoices in) and Lily attempted to emulate the movement of a dolphin – arms by her sides, legs together, face down, moving her whole body through the water. Though she lacks the grace of a dolphin, she now has the confidence to put her head under and swim a short distance. Few things make my heart swell more than the sight of the two of them resurfacing, glistening in the sunshine, water cascading off their little golden bodies, and big grins on their faces.

So Lily’s swimming improved, in an unsystematic and semi-linear sort of way. In early May the girls and I were in the outdoor pool at the youth hostel in Alcoutim (where you can use the pool for free while your laundry is in the washing machine!). Katie had the foam noodle and insisted I provide no help as she slipped in from the side, swam a noodle-assisted width, climbed out and repeated. Lily gingerly climbed in, swimming the occasional width and playing while holding on to the side of the pool. I was on high alert as, at most shallow part of the pool, both girls were still well out of their depth.

After a while, a little boy came along. He was about Lily’s age, but a much stronger swimmer and he could dive properly. I watched Lily watch him. He dove, he leaped and splashed, throwing himself far out into the middle of the pool, disappearing below the surface, resurfacing and swimming to the side.

Lily’s tentative climbing in vanished almost immediately as she tried to copy the boy or outdo him – I’m not sure which. She leaped in, disappeared below the surface, reappeared, swam to the side, climbed out and repeated. Over and over she did this, clearly exulting in this new form of water play. And then she did something else she had never done before. She figured out how to swim on her back. Two new swimming skills in one morning. I was amazed and Lily was delighted.

Later that day and the next we went to the river beach at Alcoutim. With no poolside from which to jump in, Lily used me as a platform, standing on my thighs and leaping in as I crouched in the water. On the second day a boy of about twelve came along. Again, I watched Lily watch him. He dove down, head first, into the water, doing handstands on the sandy river bed. Lily tried and tried but lacked the forward thrust to propel herself downwards. She asked for my help and I assisted by positioning her legs upwards as she went down. It only took a few assisted dives for her to get the hang of it and to touch the river bed.

And what of Katie? Well, here’s the thing. With her usual aversion to any instruction from Julian or me, Katie’s been unwilling to take any friendly advice when it’s offered. She’ll kick her legs but refuses to move her arms. Julian brought the noodle to the beach one day and she discovered the movement potentials of simultaneously moving her arms and legs.

Then it happened. A day after Lily made those dramatic advances in her swimming skills, she decided she was going to teach Katie how to swim. She actually said it: ‘Kate, I’m going to teach you how to swim’. I wasn’t swimming on this particular day, but sitting under an umbrella on the beach, reading and writing. Katie readily agreed to the swimming lesson.

Lily began by holding Katie’s hands, instructing Katie to lift her legs and kick, while Lily walked backwards. ‘Kick, kick’, Lily instructed. ‘Don’t stop’. Both were taking their roles very seriously and there was none of the usual boisterous playfulness. When she thought Katie was ready to use her arms (a couple of minutes later), Lily showed her the proper way to hold her hands, fingers together, hands slightly scooped (Lily herself usually swims fingers splayed and hands flat!). She showed Katie the required arm movements and told Katie to try. ‘Keep going, good girl’, sounded familiar to my ears! The instruction carried on far longer than if Julian or I had attempted it. In a very short space of time Katie was swimming. I couldn’t believe it.

They both called for me to watch (of course I’d been watching over the top of my book all along) and when Katie swam five metres, she stood and gave me two thumbs up. Later, when they came out of the water to dry off, Lily said, ‘Kate, tomorrow I’ll teach you to swim on your back’, a skill Lily herself had discovered 24 hours earlier.

Julian missed out on these days of swimming, so I enjoyed watching his surprise when he next came swimming and discovered that both girls could now swim and Lily had mastered diving and swimming on her back.

Like virtually every aspect of their home educated lives, the girls learn far more through play than through formal instruction. They learn at their own pace and when they are ready. At 4 and 6 years old, I care far more about cultivating their enthusiasm and passion, whether that’s for swimming or the natural world or reading or maths. Learning from and with each other and from and with other children and adults through play and encounter is our path to lifelong passion and desire for learning.

‘Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood’ – Fred Rogers.

‘For a small child there is no division between playing and learning; between the things he or she does ‘just for fun’ and things that are ‘educational’. The child learns while living and any part of living that is enjoyable is also play’ – Penelope Leach.