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Why kids’ play needs to be unstructured and unhurried

Child playing with cardboard rocket shipI love the words that poet Wallace Stevens wrote about the imagination: “The imagination is the power of the mind over the possibilities of things.”

To me, imagining possibilities is at the heart of children’s pretend play. That’s the beauty and significance of unstructured, self-invented play – play that leads to imaginative and creative thinking.

Let me describe a chance happening that describes beautifully how I see creative thinking. Michael (barely 3) and I had just gone outside to ‘look at things’. Almost immediately, two brightly-hued, glossy leaves fell in front of us and Michael pounced on them. Swiftly rearranging them to form a ‘V’ in his hand, he turned to look at me triumphantly and said: ‘Flower!’thepossiblityofthings - ursula kolbe

He had taken two things and created a third – something original, something of value. The very essence of creativity! An ordinary moment had become extraordinary because of a child’s response to the unexpected. While the unexpected rarely happens in structured play activities, it very often does happen in children’s self-invented play: surprise stirs the imagination and sparks original ideas.

Of course, Michael might never have invented his ‘flower’ if I hadn’t been there to see it. Having someone silently appreciate what you’re doing is a wonderful spur to the imagination. Company is important – but we often needn’t say a word. The less you say, the more you allow your child to think for themselves, and the more opportunities you gain to learn about their thinking.

Here is another example of a child thinking for herself. After gathering seedpods, twigs, and leaves from the ground, Luna, barely 3, asked her mother for a bowl – and with that her make-believe cooking started. ‘I’m make soup!’ she said, stirring her finds. Just play? The imaginary begins in play. Through making new connections and pretending that her objects in the bowl are now food, Luna is thinking imaginatively.

Developmental psychologists have shown that substituting one thing for another like this is the starting point for learning to think abstractly.

ursula - girl soup

Luna’s soup-making didn’t arise out of the blue. Her parents told me that since she was a toddler she liked gathering things outdoors. So this was something they encouraged – simply by giving her enough time to potter about in the garden. Intensely curious like all young children, through finding and fingering natural objects, Luna was learning about her world.

Unstructured and unhurried play, as neuroscientists, psychologists and educators have long said, encourages children to become imaginative and inventive thinkers. Importantly, through experiencing play, children develop key skills for life such as problem-solving, taking the initiative, learning to persist with something, and getting along with others.

Yet we have to ask ourselves whether today’s pressure on parents and teachers is sidelining children’s play. Do we give children enough unhurried and uninterrupted time to think for themselves, to think of the “possibility of things”?

Do you feel under pressure to do the utmost for your children’s development by hovering around them, making suggestions, and guiding them to get the most out of every moment that you can spare?

My advice: try doing less.

Simply watching and listening – doing almost “nothing” – can be the greatest gift we can give the very young. Of course older children on the other hand like being trusted to play on their own.

Having enough time and space, a few basic materials for drawing, household bits for making things, and digital programs that allow them to invent things will encourage children to develop their imagination at their own pace and in their own way.

About Ursula Kolbe

Ursula Kolbe is an artist and internationally recognised author of books about early childhood. She lectured in early childhood art at Macquarie University, worked as artist-teacher with young children, and wrote and ...

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