Basic Freedom: Play

PlayAs long as it is an expression of love for God and love for others, you are free to:
PLAY
Create
Think
Relate
Speak
Learn

One of the Basic Freedoms at the Truly Free School is “play”.1  In most modern, institutionalized educational settings, “play” has come to be associated with “slacking off” or “being unproductive”.  The reality, however, is that play is an essential and critical component of our humanity, and is a manifestation of our nature as model-builders and interpreters of our environments.  In play, a person constructs an arbitrary set of rules, and then tests the contours and edges of those rules to see if they form a cohesive and fulfilling superstructure.  No play is devoid of learning; on the contrary, it is impossible to not learn while playing.  Play is foundational to sequential and associative thinking, problem solving and creativity, socialization, and physical skill.

There is no area of learning or knowledge acquisition that is unaffected by the primacy of play.  Even in the purest of the “pure research” in the hard sciences, the pinnacle of accomplishment and impact is achieved by those that hypothesize new models of reality, test those theories and assumptions by pressing past the boundaries of accepted knowledge, and experimentally prove out the logical implications of their presuppositions.  Not one major scientific breakthrough or discovery came as a result of following existing models, but all resulted from breaking down and reforming new theories of reality. The impact of these significant moments of progress would not be possible were the theorizing not founded on the basis of the cognitive structures found in play.

Not only do advances in technology and scientific knowledge come as a consequence of a mind that has been able to function freely in play, but significant social and relational benefits come, as well. Consider the young child in their development of language and communication skills.  They observe their environment, formulate and distill (albeit subconsciously) rules for how the communication game is played, and then make attempts at following the rules to achieve results within the arbitrary linguistic framework.  The child who requests a cookie and is told “no”, might be heard cycling through various inflections and intonations of the same question, in an attempt to test the unspoken rules about how vocal pitch relates to meaning and influences others:

“Can I have a cookie?”
“I’m sorry, you can’t have one right now.”
“Well, can I.”
“No, sweety – you need to eat your dinner first.”
“WELL, CAN I!”

Even as adults, we are constantly formulating and revising subjective rules governing social interactions, and testing them through our daily conversations, seeing how the way we respond and relate affects the other “players” in the communication game.

Most commonly, and perhaps most obviously, play has tangible benefits for the development of physical skill. The most highly skilled athlete or musician has spent countless hours practicing their craft, and it is not surprising that the common idiom for engaging in such activity is “play” – athletes “play” games, and musicians “play” instruments. There would be no mastery of these complex and challenging tasks were it not founded on the reality of play as the basis for continued improvement.

“Play is learning”. 2 Let us not make a false dichotomy between learning and play, but let us see play as a necessary and foundational component of how we learn.


[1]Many of the underlying ideas in this article have their genesis in Daniel Greenberg’s Worlds In Creation.
[2]For a clear and effective research summary of the relevant literature on play, please see Dr. Rachel White’s The Power of Play.