what is self-directed free play, and why is it so elusive?

self directed play


‘children whine that they have NOTHING to do... that’s when you glance around to see toys, games, books... all lying within arms reach. you ask yourself - why do i even bother buying these things. you explain to your children (for the millionth time) that they have many many choices - they can read books or solve puzzles, play with their toys or draw pictures. “why do i have to explain this to you over and over again?!" (excerpt from the play room fairy)

...this phenomenon that parents are hoping and praying their children will figure out is SELF DIRECTED play or FREE play.

psychologist Peter Gray in his book ’Free to Learn’ argues that all genuine play is fundamentally a free choice. “if it’s not ‘free’, it’s not ‘play’”, he says.


self directed play is an evolutionary tool

“play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself”  ~ dr. stuart brown

because free play is self directed, and because children are innately wise, it allows them to self select play scenarios that perfectly suit the needs of the world around them, their curious minds, their individual interests, emotional needs and physical capabilities i.e. their customised ‘evolution’ plan - holistic growth of the body, mind and soul.


so why then is it so elusive?


the ability to keep oneself occupied is a skill - and like any other skill, it needs daily practice for one to become proficient. how many of us, grown ups, have the ability to truly entertain ourselves?  


kids are often ‘over stimulated’ these days - with technology, constant entertainment, structured “activities”, frequent novelty and even loud colours and sounds.

because there is so much external ‘stimulation’ their brains have gotten used to outsourcing all the work of keeping itself occupied, to the environment - thus creating a vicious cycle of needing even more entertainment/novelty/stimulation etc.


the importance of boredom

“children need to sit in the nothingness of boredom in order to arrive at an understanding of who they are.”, says psychologist Vanessa Lapointe.

and true enough, it is only after overcoming the boredom hump does true play, curiosity, creativity and self-directedness emerge. but for that, we need to let them ride out their boredom first.

so the next time your kids are bored this summer, don’t reach for the nearest distraction… smile, and LET. THEM. BE. :) 



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